Some people consider pets to be possessions, and others consider them to be a member of the family. The Green Mountain State’s Supreme Court will get a firsthand look at a particular case trying to decide exactly that. At issue is a German wirehaired pointer, an eleven year old pooch whom the divorcing couple who are fighting for custody as one camp puts it or ownership as the other ex-spouse states, proving that pet custody in Vermont can be a real heel. Laura Baker and ex-husband Daniel Hament a childless divorcing couple sorted out the property, the financial affairs are in order. But there is this last little sticking point, and in that whether the dog is to be considered like a child or more like property. Belle, the dog loved by both her owners, forced Baker and Hament into family court. While Baker wanting to have Belle receive joint custody Hament rejected the idea. The pair was originally told by Chittenden Superior Court Judge Linda Levitt that the case would be decided on who cared for the dog more. Hament was a veterinarian who took the dog to work each day. Meanwhile, Baker took care of the dog’s daily needs, and took it for long walks in the forest.
The court said it would not enforce a shared visitation schedule “even if the parties agreed to it.” Hament instead won the dog in that case. The judge said it was because the dog had gone to the Richmond Animal Hospital, where Hament is a vet, as the change in its life would be too disruptive. The judge Levitt found that the husband also “treats the dog like a dog” while on the other hand Baker “treated the dog like a child.” Therefore the judge believed the husband’s “more balanced attitude toward the animal” would be better for Belle overall. Baker and her lawyer appealed and now the case falls on the Vermont Supreme Court. Currently there is a joint ownership arrangement, though the court skipped out on a chance to make that arrangement permanent. Baker argues that her husband getting control of the dog was against another higher court’s ruling, what’s more the decision seemed arbitrary. The court recognizes pets as property but “special property” which should get special privilege when considered in a divorce settlement. In April the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision. It also stated that the lower court shouldn’t get involved in business such as custody and visitation schedules of a dog. The higher court wrote that “Unlike child custody matters, there is no legislative authority for the court to play a continuing role in the supervision of the parties with respect to the care and sharing of a companion animal.”
Nanci Smith, attorney for the wife’s side, said she was upset that the court decided not to set a “bright-line rule” clarifying the special status of pets. If pets are special property says Smith than why isn’t that recognized by the law? Smith said, “Just because you’re getting divorced, it doesn’t seem the same as giving the piano to somebody. It’s severing an emotional connection that we all value as a society and the Supreme Court has valued in other contexts.” Matt Buckley, the husband’s attorney, said that no new case law came out of this particular case. Though courts around the country have been starting to see pets more as children that can have shared custody, the Vermont Supreme Court instead “didn’t want to go there.” Since dogs are property, only one side can technically own them. This wasn’t about dogs at all, points out Buckley, “Everybody in the courtroom that day were dog lovers. I bring a dog to my office every day. Judge Levitt has a dog. Nanci Smith brings her dog to the office. So everyone in there appreciated the emotional significance of what was being decided.” This isn’t the first case to tackle this issue. Scheele and Scheele v. Dustin, a case that took place in 2009, saw Sarah and Denis Scheele be awarded $3,000 when Lewis Dustin killed the dog as it had ended up on his property. The dog didn’t display any threatening actions. In their ruling the Supreme Court wrote that animals were not just financial burdens when lost but one “derives from the animal’s relationship with its human companions … Indeed, we have suggested that the emotionless economic calculus of property law may not fully compensate a mourning pet owner.” If you want to learn more about pet custody read, What about Wally? Co-Parenting a Pet with Your Ex by Steve May and David Pisarra.