Recently, in a New Jersey courtroom, Patrick found himself in the middle of an argument over visitation rights. What you may be surprised to hear is that Patrick is a dog. This recent court hearing centered around Patrick the pit bull, a dog who has been made famous since he was found nearly starved to death in a Newark trash chute several months ago. While Patrick may not be your typical dog — having survived a horrible situation and now with his own Facebook page with thousands of fans worldwide — his situation shines a light on the issue of who has the rights to the family pet.
According to a survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, attorneys have seen a 23 percent increase in custody battles over pets. Joint custody, sole custody, visitation rights, or splitting up the pets between partners are all up for discussion when it comes to divorce these days. Conflict also arises over who pays the vet bills for the pets regardless of who gets custody. Even famous people have battled over their pets. Britney Spears and Kevin Federline fought over their dogs to the point where animal rights activists got involved. PETA encouraged Federline to file for custody of the pets after Spears lost custody of their two children. The activists thought the children should continue to have the company of the animals they’ve grown to love.
The topic of divorce and pets has become so widespread that there are even books out on the subject. Jennifer Keene, author of the book We Can’t Stay Together for the Dogs: Doing What’s Best for Your Dog When Your Relationship Breaks Up, says that a couple should put aside emotion, resentment, and recrimination and focus on figuring out what’s best for the animal. She states that under no circumstances should a pet go to someone who likes the idea of having the pet but doesn’t have sufficient time because of travel, work, or other obligations; and if someone is happy to attend to the “fun things” but not the “not so fun things” such as poop scooping, veterinary visits, and end of life decisions.
Although most pet owners believe pet custody cases should be decided in the same way as child custody cases, that’s not the way the law sees it now. Keene states, “The best interest of the pet” is not a consideration, and the animal is pretty much considered property. Arrangements when it comes to pets aren’t always amicable.
If you are going through a divorce, here are some tips about pet custody:
• If the animal was yours before the marriage or if you have been the primary caretaker of the animal during the marriage, you are more likely to be awarded possession.
• If you have children, it makes the most sense for the pet to live where the children will live, since the children and pets have formed an attachment.
• Avoid separating pets if you have two or more of the same species. This could cause depression or anxiety for the animals.
• Show the court that you are the person best able to care for the animal—you have time to play with it, exercise it, and groom it. Show that you have space in your home for the animal. If necessary, have your vet testify about your ability to care for the animal.
Since 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, my advice to you is to plan ahead. Over the years I’ve seen many animals turned into shelters because of a divorce. So at the very least, make sure one spouse keeps the pet. Hopefully the true animal lover will get the dog instead of the doghouse.
The Santa Barbara County Animal Care Foundation will be holding a Benefit Dinner on Sunday, August 7, at 4 p.m., at the Santa Maria Elks Lodge. The afternoon will feature dinner, a silent auction, and celebrity guest Shorty Rossi, star of Animal Planet’s Pit Boss. Tickets are $50 per person; table of 10 for $500. Advance purchase only, no tickets will be sold at the door. For more information or to purchase tickets, contact Linda Greco, at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a message at (805) 260-2386.
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