"Pet custody" makes me cringe

A scene from "Best in Show". You should rewatch this movie. AND THEN GO GET BUSY BEE.

A scene from "Best in Show". You should rewatch this movie. AND THEN GO GET BUSY BEE.

The article was in an open tab on my laptop for four days before I actually read it. And when I finally mustered the patience to make my way through each paragraph, the screen went blank, completely white. It took me another full day to get myself to Google it, click the link and go through it all again.

The article, published last week in the Chicago Tribune, is about a divorcing couple debating custody of their dog.

As with any divorce, particularly any divorce that involves arguing over where a being caught in the middle of a relationship breakup should live and be cared for and thrive, the story is complicated. But in this case in suburban Carol Stream, the issue is not just which party is best fit to care for a 5-year old Labrador Retriever named Pepper, but whether Pepper should be considered a "thing" or (as one party put it) "living thing" with "a heart."

A pet, at least in this state, is considered property, divvied up among the assets like the Bruce Springsteen records and the as-yet-unopened bread maker wedding gift and the car that could need a new transmission at any moment. This legal site points out that one way around this legal treatment of non-human family members is to outline pet custody in a pre-nuptial or post-nuptial agreement, and that visitation may even be awarded to the non-custodial owner. 

But Pepper's parents didn't think of that, and so they've already stood before a judge, who issued an order of protection for owner Susan Barron, demanding that the other owner, Paul Barthel stay away from her, the house and the pet.  The order arose after Susan Barthel claimed her soon-to-be ex-husband broke into her home and took the dog. He claimed the dog jumped into his car when he happened to be driving down the street. 

The press has quoted Barthel as pleading, "Your pet has a heart..." in an appeal for a mediator to decide Pepper's fate in the divorce. Barron has responded that the pleas are harassment, not concern for the canine's well-being, saying, “This is not about the dog...He just keeps going out of his way to file orders and motions to prolong the pain and suffering of this divorce.”

And really, neither of those tactics are new or surprising to the court. Nor is the debate over doggie custody. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers told the Chicago Trib that cases mentioning pets are up 25% in the last five years. 

A judge will reopen the file on the Barthel-Barron division of assets, including Pepper, in August, right along with "a time share, golf clubs and kitchen appliances" (good one, Chicago Tribune). And, as a person who has been through this process and also have been through the painful, slow, expensive, emotional process of deciding every custody detail of a human being, I agree that the decision about the dog should have its day in court with all the stuff.

This doesn't mean I don't value dogs like Pepper, or any other pet who is loved and cared for by a couple who no longer want to love or care for each other. I do. I don't have a pet in my home today, but I grew up in a family where we cherished our pups, treated them well and then mourned their loss long after they died. I have friends who call their pets "fur babies", who post far more photos on Facebook of their animals walking, playing, lounging and looking adorable in knit caps than many parents in my circle do. Some people I know have much stronger bonds with their pets than they do with any human being in their life. I have compassion.

But. But. But. Raising a child and raising a pet are not the same. And choosing where a pet lives in court should not bear as much weight -- or expense or press coverage -- as deciding which home or homes a child will thrive in. Where a dog's bowl is placed cannot compare to the four walls where a child sleeps, learns to read, spills the details of her day over dinner, brings home his first date, asks tough questions, learns the consequences of lying, does homework every evening, is accepted to camp and college and the honors society and a summer gig at a local restaurant. 

I get that people love their pets with full and open hearts. And it makes me cringe that someone, anyone, would insinuate in the press or in a legal statement that a dog should be considered on par with a growing person. 

Family court is hard enough, too often unjust, terribly slow and in dire need of reexamination and possibly huge reform. I don't know a single person who has been through a divorce that included child custody and parenting agreements who wasn't exasperated, exhausted financially and emotional going through it. I don't know anyone who has been in a family law courtroom who would say it's a great place to be, that it is a well-oiled system.

For all those kids caught in that system, who are abused or confused or in limbo because a custody trial date can't be properly scheduled for months and months, for the parents who spend every penny they have to fight to see their children, for moments when neglectful or inadequate parents' rights are upheld, when racism and sexism and stereotypes override every other paper in the file, for so many scenarios that need attention so that kids find themselves in the safest beds and living rooms and schedules and situations -- let's put the pet custody thing to rest.

Decide where the dog lives when the couch conversation happens. Settle the pet stuff with the stuff so that the real custody discussions -- and dollars and energy and scrutiny and investigation -- can center on children. 

Do you disagree? Did I leave something out? Let me have it in the comments.