When a relationship ends, the division of assets begins. But who gets to keep the dog? Peter Munro reports for SMH on the increasingly common – and sometimes messy – custody disputes involving pets.
They never fought nor raised their voices, even when dividing “ours” into “yours” and “mine”. They found a quietly sad way of falling apart without the screaming and shouting. So when she said she was leaving with a bed, some paintings and their pets, he pursed his lips but said nothing. The animals were the last heartbeats in their six-and-a-half-year relationship. Simonne Lee recalls the day they came home with the black kitten. “It was ours, not just mine or his, but ours together,” she says. “It was a really nice period when you connect more, and Nero was so little and scared.”
Soon after, when her partner said he wanted a snake, they picked Pi from a box of baby serpents at a petshop. The spotted brown “children’s python” is now longer than a kindergarten child:130 centimetres, tongue to tail. Lee lets him slink about her shoulders in her living room in Sydney’s Double Bay, where she moved after separating from her partner last year.
He was happy for her to take the snake from their once-shared Bondi home. “Pi was easy because he didn’t really handle Pi,” says Lee, as the serpent dangles in her hair. “I said to him, ‘You don’t feed Pi, you don’t get him out.’ So that was a no-brainer.”
Deciding who kept the cat was more complicated, says Lee, looking about the room. Nero is at his “Dad’s” today, she says, with some sadness. The pet is shared between them.
“Usually it is one week or two weeks on and off. If he goes away he tells me and I take Nero,” says Lee. They make the arrangements by email. She does the pick-ups and drop-offs, and buys enough pet food for both houses. “My goal was to make it as easy as possible. I just didn’t want it to get messy,” she says.
In the mess of a broken relationship, working out who keeps the cat, dog, bunny or budgie looms large. A study of 1000 people in July (2013), by Slater & Gordon lawyers, found one in 12 lost their pet after separation or divorce. Many mistakenly believed the Family Court would make shared custody arrangements for their pets. One lawyer at the firm recommends parties sign “pet pre-nups” to avoid such conflict.
Those involved in pet custody cases are often affluent, childless couples, who fight for ownership of the animal as keenly as for a son or daughter. The family dog or cat can become a bargaining chip when splitting the spoils of a failed relationship. “A pet is part of setting up home together, of establishing yourself as a couple, so when the relationship breaks down there is grief for the loss of what might have been,” says Relationships Australia manager Sue Yorston.
“The pet can become part of the dispute, part of the power play … who has invested more time in the pet? Who sees the pet? Who walks the pet? Who plays with the pet more? It can be a tool for hurting another person. There is that anger: ‘You have done something to me. I feel shit and it’s your fault; I am going to make you pay.’ ”
Over a tall glass of water in her apartment, Lee tells me she is a professional “animal communicator”, meaning she can talk with the animals via a form of telepathy. I nod but don’t pretend to understand. She says she can communicate with Nero on the days he is at his Dad’s. But still she struggled with the notion of sharing the cat with her ex-partner. “I had assumed, with me being an animal communicator, I would take both animals. He didn’t fight me, but he wasn’t happy about it,” she says. “Nero was acting very anxious, quite nervy. I was saying, ‘It’s okay, you’ve got a home with me.’ But I could feel he was sad that he wasn’t going to see his dad. So I just said to him [my ex-partner], ‘Do you want to share Nero, because I know he will really miss you.’ And he said, ‘I would like that.’ And it was done.”
She shows me a photograph of Nero, who is neat and dark and, she says, as aloof and naughty as a teenager. “It wasn’t an easy decision for me. But it is what’s best for Nero and they really love each other,” she says. “I miss him. My snake and my cat are like my kids.”
As I leave her home, she hands me one of Pi’s old snakeskins, putting it in a paper bag for my own children.
They called her Lucky. When they found the little Lhasa apso under a trailer her health was poor, her hair matted and dirty. Craig and Gayle Myers gave the dog a new home. Then, when their marriage ended about a year later and Gayle moved out, Lucky had two homes. They shared the dog – a week on, week off – for a year before the stress of having to see each other every seven days brought them to court. In mid-2010, a judge in Calvert County, in the United States, ruled Craig would get Lucky for half the year, while Gayle would have her the other six months. “Usually you fight over a child,” Craig told reporters. “Lucky is our child.”
Other court battles over pets have not resolved so neatly. In the earlier case of Perkins v Perkins, a San Diego woman spent $US146,000 in legal fees fighting for sole custody of Gigi, a pointer greyhound cross, including the cost of hiring an animal behaviourist to conduct a “canine bonding study”. Courts in the US are slowly accepting that pets mean more to people than their price tag. In 2009, a New Jersey court ordered Eric Dare and Doreen Houseman to share Dexter the pug in five-week rotations, after a judicial panel ruled the dog was as invaluable as a family heirloom or piece of fine art.
Australian courts have refused to make any similar “pet parenting” orders, says legal expert Keith Akers, co-author of the book Humanising Animals: Civilising People. “While two human partners separating may see the family pet as a sentient being, the Family Court treats animals as goods or chattels,” he says.
Dr Akers, who has two moggies at home in regional Victoria, argues courts should be more flexible in deciding who gets the pets. “I can’t see anything wrong with using the same approach as courts do with children. If a child suffers as a result of their parents separating and only being able to live with one of them, I would have thought the same would apply to a dog.”
Informal “pet parenting” agreements between former partners are becoming increasingly common. When Kevin Newman, 26, left his male partner and their three-bedroom home in Truganina, in Melbourne’s outer west, he never considered leaving his border collie behind. “He wanted to talk about it and I think I said, ‘There are no ifs, buts or maybes about it. Cynder is my dog and if I move out she is going with me,’ ” he tells me on the phone.
They agreed their other dog Luna, a beagle, would remain behind with Newman’s ex-partner. Before moving day, last Christmas, they started walking the dogs separately to acclimatise them to being apart. “We made a mature decision we were going to be in each other’s lives for the dogs; kind of like having kids, you have to stay in contact for them,” Newman says.
Under the terms of their informal custody agreement, Newman, a social media officer at The Lost Dogs Home, in North Melbourne, looks after Luna when his ex-partner is away. He last saw the beagle at Easter. “It’s hard because you do form such a close bond with a pet so it is quite difficult to move on. You have to accept you are losing one of your best friends,” he says. “I miss the little things. When she would wake up she wouldn’t move out of bed because she was a grumpy sleeper.”
Cynder was his “emotional support” when his relationship crumbled, Newman says. They also perform together in “dog dancing” competitions, practising in the backyard of their Sunshine home. Newman, one of Australia’s only male dog dancers, has devised a routine to Gangnam Style, training Cynder to weave in and out of his legs on stage. “She was that one constant I always had to get out of bed, because she had to be fed and taken for a walk,” he says. “There was a time I came home and was sitting on the kitchen floor crying and she put her head on my lap and sat with me.”
One “co-parenting guide” for pets, titled What About Wally?, advises against splitting dogs between homes. Pet parenting plans should also include clauses on food, grooming, holiday care, veterinary bills, doggie daycare, end-of-life decisions and animal “step-siblings”, the book says.
Joanne Sillince, from industry body Pets Australia, says she gets phone calls each week from people wanting advice on custody issues. Such arrangements avoid the cost and uncertainty of a court verdict, but little of the emotion. “Sometimes they express stronger emotions than they do for their children,” says Jean-Marcel Malliaté, principal mediator at InterMEDIATE.
He mentions one mediation where the warring parties agreed that their dogs would remain in the family home with the ex-wife. The ex-husband was allowed to take them for a walk every other weekend. The couple had separated because of his infidelity. There were tears and heated talk of betrayal. “In a lot of cases where pets are involved there are more emotions of grief or loss shown,” says Malliate. “It’s as difficult to work out a parenting plan for pets as it is for children.”
She sits quietly in her concrete cage, waiting patiently for a liver treat. The white Staffordshire cross is only a year old, but has already seen too much. At home, she was chained in the backyard for days with no water or food. Her owner was unable to help the dog – her abusive partner would beat the woman if she dared try to.
When the woman fled the violent relationship she had to leave the dog behind. Police later recovered the animal and it was brought here, to the RSPCA shelter in Yagoona, in south-west Sydney. The RSPCA cares for about 100 animals a year under its Safe Beds for Pets program, which provides temporary accommodation for animals belonging to women in domestic abuse situations. Other animal shelters in Sydney and Melbourne similarly take in pets when there is violence at home.
The Staffy cross has been at Yagoona for about four months and will leave tomorrow with her owner, who has found them a new home away from her abuser. In the kennels nearby are three dogs and two cats from the one family, also here under the Safe Beds program. The dogs yap like mad and wag their tails for a treat.
RSPCA community programs supervisor Sanda Ma says some pets suffer within abusive relationships. Some are set alight or killed. One dog was brought here after the animal’s jaw was broken by a man’s boot. “A lot of them are fearful of men,” Ma says. “They are scared of loud noises; the trigger for one was police sirens, because he used to hear them coming to the house.”
Veterinarian Catherine Tiplady, author of Animal Abuse: Helping Animals and People, published in May, says some people might harm a pet as a way of controlling their partner. In a small survey of domestic abuse victims, one in three told her their partner had threatened to hurt or kill their pet if they left. One woman came home to find her partner had cut off the heads of her six chickens and strewn their remains across the front verandah. “Often women delay leaving a partner for months or years because they are worried about their pets,” Tiplady says.
“One woman chose to stay with her violent partner but euthanised the three dogs he kept beating, because she felt that was the best outcome. He would treat them like teddy bears, she said. He would take them to bed with him and squeeze them so hard they became distressed.”
Such pets often develop a condition called “learned helplessness”, says RSPCA NSW deputy chief vet Norm Blackman. “Cats will hide under beds or behind furniture. Dogs will go into a corner or another room to get away,” he says. “If they have been beaten lots of times they will roll over and take it. It’s the same with people; if people are bullied and pushed around and beaten down all the time they just become complacent.”
Even in cases where there is no domestic abuse, the breakdown of a relationship can cause anxiety in animals, he says. Some pets are left homeless when the couple cannot agree who should keep them. Last year in NSW, 122 animals were surrendered to the RSPCA because of a relationship breakdown. Shared custody can cause problems for dogs, in particular, because they tend to bond with a particular owner, Blackman says. “You have to have a conversation about what is in the best interests of the dog,” he says. “In many ways it is not necessarily the environment that is the important thing. It is how they are bonded with one person or another.”
An old golden retriever waits on a leash while his warring owners walk to the far end of the soccer field, in the mid-afternoon sun. The mediator drops the leash and tells the ex-husband and wife to call the dog in turn, letting the pooch decide which person should take it home. The woman goes first but when she beckons the dog doesn’t move. When the man speaks, calling the dog in a deep voice, it comes running. It could be a scene from the 1937 Cary Grant comedy The Awful Truth, where a judge declares the fate of a terrier, Mr Smith, “will depend on his own desires”. In the film, the ex-wife cheats by secreting a doggie toy in her hand. Some owners in the US have been similarly caught cheating in such tests by smearing sausage on their palms.
Custody of the golden retriever in the above case, which occurred in regional NSW several years ago, was granted by consent to the ex-husband, who took the dog home that day. The middle-aged married couple had significant property assets and superannuation to divide but, until they walked out on the soccer field, deciding who kept the dog had been their biggest sticking point. “As soon as the man spoke in an authoritative voice the dog ran to him. I think by then the lady had decided the dog could stay with her ex,” says family lawyer Heather McKinnon. “They accepted the decision the animal made and, in the end, it was a way of letting go.”
Fighting over who gets the pets is becoming more common at mediation, says McKinnon, who works for Slater & Gordon in Coffs Harbour, on the NSW north coast. “I’ve been in practice for 30 years and I have definitely seen a change in the way the culture looks at animals,” she says. “We see more dislocation in society, and people feel a sense of abandonment when their relationship ends, so their pet means more to them. The legal system sees pets as an asset, like a lounge or grandfather clock, but that is not how people see animals.” Emotions are heightened when the parting couple have no children, she says. “In cases of infertile couples, the animals substitute for a child. Those cases are really horrible to deal with because you see grief and enormous stress.”
When there are children involved, the ex-partners often agree the pets should stay or move with the children. Judging what is in the pet’s best interests might also depend on which party has the biggest backyard or more time to care for the animal.
Pets can be used like bargaining chips in torrid disputes. Jane Miller, a family law partner at Tindall Gask Bentley Lawyers in Adelaide, recalls one case where a woman gave her ex-husband.
An additional $10,000 in the settlement agreement, to win custody of their dogs. “One person often has primary attachment to the animal so the other person can sometimes use that to their advantage in negotiating,” Miller says. “We see a lot of arguments over who is going to be responsible for the cost of maintaining the pet.”
When Skye Thomas separated from her partner in February 2012, her horse was caught up in their wrangling. Her former de facto refused to let her see the horse, which was stabled on his parents’ property, until they settled their joint estate. “It turned really nasty,” she says on the phone from Coffs Harbour. “Each time I asked my partner can I get my horse, he said, ‘Not until I get my money.’ ” There were assets to be sold and debts to be paid as part of their split. “He used the horse as leverage to speed up the process of me getting the money to him,” she says.
Thomas, 33, had owned her Anglo-Arabian horse Ben since she was 15. In August, she finally reclaimed him after 18 months apart. She is happy but worries he is underweight. “It has probably ended up okay. He got his money and I got my horse,” she says. “Break-ups are not good. There are always going to be mucky elements and, unfortunately, sometimes that involves animals.”
Source: SMH – Good Weekend, Oct 2013 (http://www.smh.com.au/environment/animals/what-about-me-20131018-2vhbn.html)