May 8, 2007

News: Custody disputes extend to animals

In dissolution of marriage cases and any type of custody case, we automatically assume that the parties have a dispute over the custody of their children. Sometimes, though, the parties may be interested in settling a dispute over pets.

CNN recently reported about a custody dispute involving a golden retriever, whose adult owner committed suicide and whose (divorced) parents, the deceased man’s fiancee and the deceased man’s ex-girlfriend all sought custody of the dog. (The judge resolved the dispute in favor of splitting custody between the man’s parents, both of whom agreed to seek appropriate medical care for the dog and to other conditions.)

The case sounds extreme, but pet disputes are becoming more common. (For example, one of my immediate neighbors was involved in a protracted dispute over custody of two expensive show dogs. I often wish his ex-wife would have won, usually when I’m gardening near that particular fence.) In Oregon, the owner of a car dealership and his ex-wife feuded over custody of a wallaby named Skippy; Skippy had been purchased by the dealership and the wife was ordered to turn him over as part of other personal property listed in Exhibit A. Patchett and Patchett, 156 Or App 69, 964 P2d 1114 (1996).

When Skippy escaped (as he was prone to doing) and did not return, the husband filed a contempt action against the wife. Id. at 71-2. The trial court held the wife in contempt, but the Oregon Court of Appeals reversed, writing that there was no evidence the wife had willfully allowed Skippy to escape. Id. at 72.

Technically, of course, pets are not people and are not actually subject to “custody” disputes, but are more characterized as subject to “property division” disputes. Recently Maine extended domestic violence protection to animals and gave parties the option to seek temporary custody of animals in situations involving domestic violence, recognizing how common it is for abusive spouses and partners to take their anger out on pets. It will be interesting to see if the rest of the country, especially animal-loving Oregon, follows Maine’s example.