Dog-loving lawmakers' bill addresses pet custody in divorces

JUNEAU — Pets can get caught in the middle of messy human relationships, and some Alaska lawmakers want to ensure that the state protects them in law, not just practice.

 

Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, a family practice lawyer, has had judges sign off on agreements between divorcing couples about what to do with their animals, including who kept a cat, and joint-ownership of a sled dog team.

Now, he and Rep. Liz Vazquez, R-Anchorage, both self-described dog enthusiasts, are working on House Bill 147 to ensure that can keep happening in the future. The bill addresses pets in divorces, spells out protections for pets in domestic violence situations and provides animal shelters and others with a way to recover the cost of caring for an animal that's seized from a home.

If the bill passes, Alaska would be the first state with a law explicitly allowing a judge to issue joint-ownership of a pet, said Kathy Hessler, director of the Animal Law Clinic at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon.

The issue comes up in courtrooms already, she noted, and judges have issued joint-ownership in other states, particularly when the parties agree.

"In many, perhaps all, states, judges are struggling with this issue," Hessler said.

Fairbanks residents Trista Crass and Elliot Wilson share custody of their dog, 13-year-old Siddha, by choice. When they divorced in 2011, they decided to share three cats, four chickens and a dog.

"When you have an animal for almost a decade, it can be the most painful part of a breakup," Crass wrote in an email.

Wilson kept the pets initially, while she lived on a sailboat. Now she has the two remaining cats, and they share Siddha.

Crass didn't know if shared custody would be right for everyone.

"I think people should be able to make the choice if they want, but I am doubtful about pet custody being ruled by a judge," she wrote. "If you can't get along well enough to work out the logistics of shared custody on your own, it might be difficult to actually follow through with."

The bill also allows a judge to consider an animal's well-being in deciding who keeps a pet, not just ownership. Vazquez said that means a judge would consider things like who walks a dog, and who takes it to the vet or gives it medicine.

The bill would also codify protections for pets in domestic violence situations.

When a victim of domestic violence files for a protective order in Alaska, he or she can include pets on the list of items to have taken from the perpetrator and brought to them.

That's on a form provided by the court system. The bill would add it to the law. According to information provided by Legislative Research Services, at least 27 other states include pets in protective orders by law.

Tima Preiss, a psychotherapist in Fairbanks, said that sort of protection for pets also helps victims, and reduces the ability of the pet being used as a pawn.

Preiss said she has seen clients who were very emotionally connected to a pet. For some, trying to leave a domestic violence situation without a pet is like leaving without a child.

The Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, which opposed an initial draft of the bill, wrote in an April 14 email to lawmakers working on the measure that it supported the latest draft.

That draft is in the House Judiciary Committee, and Gruenberg said he and Vazquez will work on the bill over the summer, with hopes of passing it next year.

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