When my friends Mike and Pamela decided to get divorced a few years ago, things couldnâ€™t have been more civilised at first. They had no problem deciding who should get the car, the television or the cappuccino machine, and they agreed to split the value of their home 50:50.
Then it came to deciding who should have Trusty, their pet springer spaniel, and all hell broke loose.
â€œAs far as I was concerned, Trusty was my dog,â€ Michael says. â€œAnd, however impractical, I wanted to keep him. The trouble was that Pam felt exactly the same.â€
Dogs are treated by the law as property. But that is not how many owners think of them. â€œTheyâ€™re actually living family members who bring out parental instincts in their owners,â€ says Jennifer Keene, an American dog trainer. â€œTelling a dog owner that theyâ€™re not going to see their dog again is like saying to a mother or a father that they wonâ€™t see their child.â€ Add the upset of losing a beloved dog or cat to the trauma of losing a home, a partner, a way of life and perhaps even the residence of oneâ€™s children as well.
If pets can inherit money â€” the billionaire Leona Helmsleyâ€™s pampered Maltese terrier, Trouble, received $12m in trust when she died in 2007 â€” and a dog, Scooby, could appear as a witness in a Parisian murder trial earlier last year, it surely follows that pets will soon be entitled to their own day in the divorce courts, and perhaps even legal representation. Pet custody battles rarely reach court in Britain, according to Trevor Cooper, an expert in dog law, and when they do, judges are unlikely to look kindly on them.
Should a dogâ€™s wishes, as well as its welfare, be taken into consideration? And how can a judge tell what those wishes might be? One way is the so-called â€œcalling contestâ€, when
a pet is placed in the middle of a courtroom, halfway between the warring parties, and both are asked to call it over at the same time. Whoever the dog runs to wins custody.
In the end, my friends resolved their battle for custody of Trusty without resort to the courts. Michael gave in and let Pam have him. â€œI realised that I was just being stubborn,â€ he says. â€œI knew in my heart that sheâ€™d be able to take better care of him.â€