Every so often I am given the opportunity to handle cases outside my usual practice areas that I find interesting and that, most importantly, give me a chance to right a wrong.
One such case involved a female English bulldog/movie star named “Chunk” (pictured), in which the plaintiff retained me to recover Chunk from her ex-boyfriend who took, and refused to return, her. I am pleased to say that the litigation has resulted in Chunk being returned to her rightful owner and to her rightful home in New York City.
This is one example of a growing number of cases involving “pet custody” disputes. The legal landscape for such disputes appears to be changing; notably, there has been a recent trend to treat companion dogs as more than just property.
For example, in Travis v. Murray, Judge Cooper held – in reliance on Raymond v. Lachmann – that a strict property analysis should not be used to resolve a dispute between divorcing spouses over possession of their dachshund, and that the correct standard to be applied is “best for all concerned.”
According to the court, factors relevant to this inquiry include who bore the major responsibility for meeting the dog’s needs (i.e. feeding, walking, grooming and taking him to the veterinarian) and who spent more time with him on a regular basis.
More recently, the court in Ramseur v. Askins reaffirmed that the “best interest for all concerned” standard is the appropriate one, and – upon applying that standard – determined that the dog in question (a Shih Tzu named Deva) should remain with defendant:
[A]lthough Plaintiff testified that he wants Deva returned to him, he never actively participated in her care and the other members of Plaintiff’s household have had little to no contact with her. Indeed, the credible evidence at trial showed that Plaintiff wanted Deva returned to him not because he wants her as a companion but because he wants to make money from breeding her.
Given that the preponderance of the credible evidence at trial established that Defendant and her family have been meeting Deva’s needs for nearly her entire life, that Defendant and her family are closely bonded to Deva and she to them, that Deva is thriving with Defendant and her family, that Plaintiff has been mostly absent from Deva’s life and has abdicated her care to others, primarily Defendant and her family, that removing Deva from Defendant’s home would likely cause her a great deal of anxiety and that Plaintiff does not want Deva returned because he wants her as a companion but to breed her, the Court holds that it is best for all concerned that Deva remain in Defendant’s “possession.”
Given the large number of pets in New York City, we should expect to see more cases of this type.