Who gets Fluffy? Lawyers see spike in custody cases as couples break up under pandemic pressure | TBEN News


When Kate Peterson and her boyfriend broke up in 2019, she assumed their cat, Penny, would leave with her. After all, she was the only one who had signed the adoption papers two years earlier.

“My ex had a lot of cats growing up and said, ‘This is your cat. You get to choose her. You get to make the final decision. You get to name her,'” Peterson said. “I had the impression that she was my cat.”

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After their breakup, they agreed to share custody — but about a year later, Peterson’s ex texted her out of the blue to say he loved Penny forever.

What followed was a costly two-year battle through British Columbia’s courts as Peterson fought to restore their custody agreement. It ended with a heartbreaking result: A judge awarded her only five days with Penny a month.

“It was super disappointing, but it had also been two years since I’d seen my cat,” she said.

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“She’s 10 now and I’ve missed a lot of her life, so it was good to know that at least I was entitled to something, and something that’s legally binding.”

After a lengthy lawsuit, a judge has awarded Kate Peterson custody of her cat, Penny, five days a month — far less time than she had hoped for shared custody of her ex. (Submitted by Kate Peterson)

Canadians have increasingly been calling lawyers in recent years to decide who can keep a pet — especially in the past 18 months, as COVID-19 lockdowns and work-from-home policies forced couples to spend more time together, putting some relationships on the back burner. stand. breaking point.

Also in the US and the UK, custody battles involving lawyers are on the rise, The Guardian recently reported.

“I have seen a steep peak in [animal custody] cases since last spring,” said attorney Victoria Shroff, an adjunct professor of animal law at the University of British Columbia.

“[Lawyers] those doing genuine human divorce cases will tell you that divorce and separation are the order of the day — and it’s the same in pet custody.”

Such cases are not just limited to couples fighting over cats and dogs. Lawyers speaking to TBEN News said they’ve seen custody cases where parents and children, roommates and friends were at odds over reptiles, horses and even pot-bellied pigs.

Portrait of a woman with dark hair and glasses.
Victoria Shroff, a Vancouver-based animal rights attorney, is encouraging pet owners to try to reach a custody agreement without going to court, for more “certainty” about the outcome. (Submitted by Victoria Shroff)

Pets can become pawns in a lengthy and expensive legal battle – sometimes overshadowing decisions about who will have the children.

Jessica Bonnema, a family attorney at Siskinds LLP in London, Ontario, recalls a colleague working through a divorce involving three children and two cats.

“One of the parties was more concerned about having his favorite cat stay with him than about the parenting schedule,” Bonnema said. “And the judge said, ‘Listen, cats are personal property and children are not.'”

Risking a heartbreak in court

Because the laws in Canada treat pets as property, both parties’ investment in the animal can be a critical factor in a judge’s decision as to who the rightful owner is. The result can also vary widely depending on where in Canada it takes place.

Take the case of Mya the bernedoodle: In 2018, the Newfoundland and Labrador court of appeals decided the dog should go to the man who originally paid for it — even though he and his girlfriend adopted the dog as a couple, and she spent a significant amount more time for their pet.

On the other side of the country, judges in British Columbia are increasingly considering what is in the best interest of the pet, including which person can spend more time caring for the pet and whether it has a connection to a human or other animal.

“That really shows how the law is evolving to recognize that animals are more than just property,” said Vancouver attorney Rebeka Breder, an animal law specialist who has worked with Peterson on her case and has also seen a spike in cases of pet ownership. custody of pets. over the past 18 months.

While some Canadian courts give more weight to the owner who paid to purchase the pet, in some cases there is increasing consideration as to which owner spent more time caring for the animal. Here’s an Australian Shepherd going for a walk in Vancouver on July 9, 2018. (Tina Lovgreen/TBEN)

In Ontario, case law on pet ownership is also evolving, with judges beginning to weigh up which human spent more time caring for the pet, including trips to the vet, buying food, walking and cleaning up poop, when deciding. who gets custody.

Bonnema points to one of her cases where parents argued over who would keep the family dog.

“In the end, the judge said, ‘The kids are so attached to the dog that the dog goes where the kids are,'” she said. “Sometimes that means the dog goes back and forth, and in other cases that means the dog stays in the house where the kids mostly live.”

In some custody disputes involving more than one pet, judges have ordered that the animals be split up.

Given the patchwork of how cases play out across Canada, lawyers say it’s better for pet parents to try to reach an agreement out of court, if they can. “Doing your own private settlement gives you so much more security,” said Shroff, the UBC law professor.

Keep a pup-er track

Lawyers and pet owners who spoke to TBEN News say they hope Canada’s animal laws will eventually see pets more akin to children than property. Until then, however, many more pet owners are likely to be left heartbroken in courtroom disputes.

Experts say that keeping records is one of the most important things a pet owner can do to ensure they retain custody in the event a relationship breaks down. That includes keeping title deeds, veterinary records and bank statements showing who paid for pet food.

Some owners even go so far as to sign a special “pet-nup” or write their pet into cohabitation agreements or prenuptial agreements, to avoid an expensive and uphill battle should their relationship end in the future.

The Montreal SPCA has drafted such a draft “animal custodial agreement,” which states that in the event of a breakup in a relationship or living arrangement, the two parties will decide on a pet’s future home based on what is in its best interest. , including past care and level of emotional attachment of both owners.

Rebeka Breeder holds up an orange tabby cat.
Animal advocate Rebeka Breder, pictured with one of her rescue cats, is urging pet owners to keep all documentation that might indicate they should retain custody of their pet in the event of a breakup. (Submitted by Rebeka Breeder)

If there’s no existing pet custody plan after a breakup, Breder suggests putting any future agreement in writing — whether that’s a formal contract or just a text message.

“It’s in everyone’s interest — from the couple breaking up and the animal being shared — so that everyone understands their expectations and their obligations,” she said. “Even though it might be an amicable breakup, at some point it might not be.”

Peterson agrees. She wishes she had kept more documentation that could have helped her maintain more custody of Penny.

“I always had the impression that if something happened in our relationship, she would stay with me,” she said.

“Write things down, keep your receipts, because it can be terrible afterwards.”