Thanks to NZHerald.co.nz for this article.
Fighting like cats and dogs
Sunday July 01, 2007
By Shelley Bridgeman
If Christine Small of Rangiora has a regret, it’s that she didn’t fight harder for custody of Sweetie, the grey-and-white cat, when her marriage broke up in 2001 and she moved to the South Island.
But her ex-husband was staunch on the subject. “We didn’t argue about it or anything,” she says. “I just said, ‘I’d like Sweetie’, but he said, ‘She’s quite happy where she is, and she’s getting a bit old’.” Her husband claimed the flight from Gisborne to Christchurch would be too much for the then 7-year-old cat to handle.
In hindsight, Christine views that as a bit of a red herring. Her ex wanted the cat. Divorcing couples in New Zealand are fighting over their pets in increasing numbers.
There were more than 10,000 divorces in NZ last year, and that figure doesn’t include separations or break-ups of de-facto relationships. Declining birth rates and growing numbers of childless couples mean pets often effectively become surrogate offspring. So it’s no surprise Rover and Ginger are considered fair game by people in a marital dispute.
AdvertisementBritish research shows that more time is spent fighting over cats and dogs than over the furniture or the stereo.
In fact, in a literal – if not a practical sense – that is how New Zealand law views pets involved in a break-up.
“Pets are defined as a family chattel,” says Stephanie Ambler, family law solicitor at Simpson Grierson. Pets are listed in the Property (Relationships) Act along with household furniture, appliances, tools, and vehicles. Such matrimonial property is typically split evenly between the two partners.
Because the Care of Children Act only deals with children, notions such as custody and access technically don’t apply to pets. But Ambler believes some factors a court would consider when determining care arrangements for a child could equally be applied to pets. “Where you’ve got animals involved, it’s kind of like children in the fact that it’s not the material value that you’re after. It’s obviously just a strong emotional attachment.”
Ambler has worked on cases that include cats, dogs and turtles but says that most couples decide the fate of their pets themselves, either before or after a separation has occurred.
There’s increasing evidence that pets are now keeping some ailing relationships together. One 33-year-old Hamilton woman, who asked not to be identified, says she and her husband would have almost certainly split up were it not for the fact neither of them was prepared to give up their much-loved cat. “We’d been going through infertility and infertility treatment, so the cat was really like our baby,” she says. Stressed about both work pressures and infertility, this “emotional wreck of a couple” seriously discussed separating and dividing their property in 1999. But the biggest question was: what happens to the cat? “It just made everything too difficult,” she says. “Everything else was easy but the cat.”
So what impact could a relationship break-up have on, say, a dog? According to Flip Calkoen, dog trainer and behaviour consultant, a “reasonably stable, well-adjusted” dog will adapt easily to new living arrangements, provided it is shown leadership – in the form of training.
“By working the dog you give it confidence and security,” he says. He adds that in cases where there are two dogs, it’s in the dogs’ best interests to be kept together, even though the owners may think it most fair to take one dog each.
When Christine Small, 33, left her then husband in 2001 their two basenji dogs, Oskar and Tinka, were indisputably hers. “I said, ‘I’m taking the dogs’. That was straight- forward,” she says. “They were always pretty much my dogs.”
She had personally paid about $1500 for Tinka to be imported from Australia and from a financial viewpoint alone she believed she had a compelling claim on her.
While she took the dogs, her ex-husband kept their three cats, including Sweetie, which she would have loved to have taken. “She was a little grey-and-white girl. She was the only girl and she was the first one, and she was just beautiful.”