CANADA Who will get Fluffy? Lawyers see surge in...

Who will get Fluffy? Lawyers see surge in pet custody cases as couples split due to pandemic pressure


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Canadian animal lawyers say they’ve seen a big spike in pet custody cases over the past 18 months as separated couples fight over who gets the pet. (juste.dcv/Shutterstock)

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 signed the adoption papers two years earlier.

“My ex had a lot of cats and he was like, ‘This is your cat. You must choose her. You must make the final decision.
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You have to name her,” Peterson said. “I got the impression that she was my cat.”

After the breakup, they agreed to share custody, but about a year later, ex-Peterson texted her out of the blue to say he was keeping Penny forever.

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

“It was very disappointing, but it has been two years since I saw my cat,” she said.

“She’s 10 now and I’ve missed out on a huge part of her life, so it was nice to know that I’m at least entitled to something, and something that’s legal.”

After a lengthy litigation, a judge awarded Kate Peterson five days of custody of her cat Penny a month — far less than the joint custody she had hoped for with her ex. (Presented by Keith Peterson)

In recent years, Canadians have increasingly turned to lawyers for help deciding who can keep a pet, especially in the past 18 months as COVID-19 lockdowns and work-from-home policies force couples to spend more time together, which pushed some relationships into crisis. crucial moment.

Pet custody battles involving lawyers are also intensifying in the US and UK. The Guardian recently reported.

“I observed a sharp surge [animal custody] cases since last spring,” said attorney Victoria Shroff, an associate professor of animal law at the University of British Columbia.

“[Lawyers] those who handle direct divorce cases will tell you that divorce and separation are common across the board — and the same goes for pet custody.”

Such cases are not limited to couples fighting over cats and dogs. Lawyers who spoke to CBC News said they’ve seen animal custody cases involving parents and children, roommates and friends arguing over reptiles, horses and even bellied pigs.

Portrait of a woman with dark hair and glasses.

Victoria Shroff, a Vancouver-based lawyer, is urging pet owners to try to negotiate a custody agreement without going to court for more “certainty” in the outcome. (Presented by Victoria Shroff)

Pets can become pawns in protracted and costly legal battles, sometimes overshadowing decisions about who gets the kids.

Jessica Bonnema, family lawyer for Siskinds LLP in London, Ontario, recalls how a colleague was working through a divorce that involved three children and two cats.

“One side was more concerned with keeping his beloved cat with him than discussing a parenting schedule,” Bonnema said. “And the judge said, ‘Look, cats are personal property, but children are not.’

Risking heartbreak in court

Since the laws of Canada treat pets as property, each party’s investment in an animal can be a deciding factor in a judge’s decision on who is the rightful owner. The result can also vary greatly depending on where in Canada it takes place.

Take, for example, Burnedoodle Mia: in 2018. The Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal ruled the dog should go to the person who originally paid for it, even though he and his girlfriend adopted the dog as a couple and she spent significantly more time caring for their pet.

On the other side of the country, judges in British Columbia are increasingly considering what is in the pet’s best interests, including who can spend more time caring for the pet and whether it involves a human or another animal.

“It really shows how the law is evolving to recognize that animals are more than just property,” said Vancouver lawyer Rebeca Breder, an animal law specialist who worked with Peterson on her case and who also witnessed the surge pet custody cases.
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over the past 18 months.

While some Canadian courts are placing more weight on the owner who paid for the purchase of the pet, some are increasingly considering which owner spent the most time caring for the animal. Here, an Australian Shepherd goes for a walk in Vancouver on July 9, 2018. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

In Ontario, pet owner case law is also evolving, with judges starting to weigh which people spent the most time caring for a pet, including trips to the vet, buying food, walking and collecting feces, when deciding who should get custody. . .

Bonnema points to one of his cases, when parents quarreled over who to leave the family dog ​​to.

“Ultimately, the judge said, ‘The kids have such an attachment to the dog that the dog will go where the kids are,'” she said. “Sometimes it means the dog is going back and forth, and other times it means the dog stays in a house where the kids mostly live.”

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

Given the patchwork of how cases play out across Canada, lawyers say pet parents are better off trying to reach an agreement out of court if they can. “When you are handling your own private settlement, you have a lot more confidence,” said Shroff, a law professor at the University of British Columbia.

Watch your puppy

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

Experts say keeping records is one of the most important things a pet owner can do to maintain custody of the pet in the event of a broken relationship. This includes keeping title deeds, veterinary records, and bank statements showing who paid for the pet food.

Some owners go so far as to sign a special “home keeping” agreement or write their pet into cohabitation agreements or prenuptial agreements to avoid a costly and fraught fight should their relationship end in the future.

The Montreal Society for the Protection of Animals (SPCA) created one such Draft Animal Custody Agreement which states that in the event of a break in the relationship or living arrangements, both parties will decide the future home of the pet based on what is in its best interest, including past care and the level of emotional attachment of either owner.

Rebeca Breder is holding a red tabby cat.

Animal lawyer Rebeca Breder, pictured with one of the cats she rescued, urges pet owners to keep any paperwork that could prove they should retain custody of their pet in the event of a relationship breakdown. (Presented by Rebeca Breder)

After a breakup, if there is no valid pet custody plan, Breder offers to put any future agreement in writing – be it a formal contract or just a text message.

“It’s in everyone’s best interests – couples to go their separate ways and share the animal – so that everyone understands what their expectations are and what their obligations are,” she said. “Even though it might be an amicable break, at some point it might not be.”

Peterson agrees. She wishes she had more documentation to help her maintain greater custody of Penny.

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

“Write everything down, keep receipts, because it can be awful later.”

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