13 April 2017

LEGAL - New Alaska Legislation Considers Best Interests of Pets in Divorce

A ruling late last year in Saskatchewan found that pets should not be treated like children, with custody determined by the courts.

This decision is in line with the historical treatment of pets as personal property, and although the judge in that case acknowledged that pets are not exactly like the family butter knives, he also said that "To consume scarce judicial resources with this matter is wasteful. In my view such applications should be discouraged.”

However, judges in the United States have recently taken a different view of the situation.

Some courts have addressed issues of custody, visitation, and even alimony.

In one San Diego case, a couple was granted joint custody over their pointer-greyhound mix, Gigi.

Both owners wanted sole custody, and a court battle ensued.

The courts ordered a “bonding study” and one of the owners made a videotape of “A Day in the Life of Gigi.” That owner, Linda Perkins, was eventually granted sole custody.

The court litigation took two years, and cost around $150k in legal fees.

That case was settled in 2000, and in the interim years the number of pet custody cases has increased significantly.

Alaska is the first state to introduce pet-custody legislation, which will allow the courts to make rulings based on the well-being of the animal.

The legislation was sponsored by Republican representative Liz  Vasquez, who said that, “Our pets are members of our families. …[W]e have to remember that we’re sent here to Juneau to represent people; real human beings, many of whom have pets they love as much as their friends and family.”

The Alaska legislation also addresses the issue of pets in domestic violence situations.

Vasquez said, “Imagine being a domestic violence victim with an abuser who uses your pet as a weapon to keep you from calling the police or Troopers. This bill takes that threat away with its victim’s privilege.”

This is a critical issue, since there is a well-established link between pet abuse and intimate partner violence.

Treating pets as property can have unintended negative consequences for victims of abuse.

Similar legislation has been introduced in Rhode Island, where state representative Charlene Lima says, “People can get really vicious in divorces, and using emotional attachment to a pet is something they can use to gain leverage.”

Her bill states that judges should “consider the best interest of the animal.”

It’s unclear whether legislation like this will gain traction in other jurisdictions, but Jeff Pierce from the Animal Legal Defense Fund told the New York Times that, “We totally welcome this development in the law, and we think it’s going to accelerate.”

Canada’s judges may disagree for now, but if the rulings make a change in the safety of human abuse victims, maybe that will change.

About Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany is a published academic, an editor with the Editors Association of Canada, an independent scholar and researcher, and a self-care and narrative coach. She is particularly interested in the intersection of technology and identity - how our tools shape our selves and change our stories, and in how the nature of work is changing as we incorporate more technology into our daily lives.

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