Splitting Couples Snarl Over Furry Friends

Legal battles between couples heading for Splitsville have gone to the dogs — literally.

Issues surrounding custody of the family pet are causing couples to get catty in the courtroom, as snarling pet owners ask lawyers and judges to treat their furry friends like children, complete with requests for visitation rights or for divvying up chores like feeding, finances and trips to the vet.

“They are starting to think of pets as more like their children than like a piano,” said attorney Barbara Gislason, founding chair of the Animal Law Committee (search) of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

In fact, more than 30 top law schools, including Harvard and Yale, have fetched animal law classes for their roster — with lessons in pet custody featured.

“The number of cases we’re seeing has grown in the past 10 years,” said Joyce Tischler, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), which files friend-of-court briefs in pet custody cases. “People are invested in their animals.”

Though battles for four-legged family members are fairly new, groups like the Animal Law Committee, the ALDF and others are putting pets' legal issues in the spotlight. Now, more than 30 states have a felony statute for crimes against furry or feathered victims, according to Gislason. And pet custody laws are likely coming down the pike.

In one recent case out of West Palm Beach, Fla., a couple who got engaged after only a few weeks of dating ended their relationship with a tug-of-war over their $2,000 Yorkshire terrier named Charlie, WFOR in Miami reported.

Ashley Hurst and Luis Lionelli growled for seven months over who would snag the tiny pooch.

“He sleeps with me, he goes everywhere with me,” WFOR quoted Hurst as saying. “He’s my buddy. You can’t replace that.”

Ultimately, Hurst got Charlie; Lionelli decided not to appeal the judge’s decision.

“I wish her the best of luck with the dog,” the station quoted Lionelli as saying.

Traditionally, pets are equal to property under the law. During divorce settlements, the mediator or judge would arbitrarily decide that one spouse gets Mittens and the other gets Fido, much as one would get the grandfather clock and the other the sofa.

But as families are feeling more attached to their fluffy loved ones, lawyers and judges have to dig around and do a little reinterpreting.

“The laws have not caught up with the different social views," said Gislason. “Everybody knows a dog is not a child, but a dog is not a chair either.”

Coleen Carlstedt-Johnson, a Minnesota family attorney who has handled pet custody cases, remembers one couple who agreed to share custody of their pooch, but the judge wouldn’t approve it because he didn’t want an endless cycle of post-divorce motions for the pup in case things soured.

“He thought it was ludicrous,” she said. “They had to remove any discussion of the pet from the briefs.”

Another legal skirmish had the husband taking the aging show dog in the family and the wife getting another pooch — a pregnant one. Things went awry when the husband asked for pick-of-the-litter.

“The wife said, 'I will abort these puppies before you can have any of them,'” the lawyer recalled. “We all stopped and said, 'Nobody’s going to abort anything' … He got second pick.”

In many places, judges demand that splitting couples work out settlement and custody with a mediator before fighting over Fifi in court. Details like who will be the animal’s primary caretaker, who spends more time with the pet and who pays the bills are weighed, according to Tischler.

So just why are people willing to fork over so much in fees for their four-legged friends?

“Companion animals don’t judge you,” Tischler said. “They love unconditionally. If you’re having a bad hair day, they don’t seem to care. And they don’t go through a teen stage.”

The cats and dogs, for their part, weren’t available for comment for this story. And they usually shy away from the lawyer’s office, preferring to stay home with the food dish and leave the legal entanglements to the humans.

"I haven't met with the dogs," said mediator Carlstedt-Johnson. "Children, yes. But not the dogs."