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Consumer Reports

Fur flies in these custody battles: An increasing number of divorcing couples are fighting like cats and dogs over cherished pets | (KRT) Lynn Goldstein Nichols still has nightmares about Beanie and Kacey, the two cats she lost to her ex-husband in a divorce four years ago. And to this day, she says, it hurts more to think about her lost pets than the 30 days she spent in jail for disobeying a judge's order to give them up.

"If I could, I would spend all my time crusading to change the laws that say these living creatures that spend their life with you are nothing more than property," said Nichols, 54, of Louisville. "If your pets are like your children and you get a divorce, they end up getting divided up like pots and pans. It's devastating."

With so many marriages in America ending in divorce, couples aren't just fighting over the kids or who gets the china and the king-size bed anymore. A growing number are squaring off over who will end up with the family pet.

In the past decade there has been a proliferation of pet-custody cases, with judges forced to decide what will happen to the family dog, cat or even the parakeet when a couple splits.

Though pets generally are considered personal property under most state laws, pet owners don't always feel that way. As some couples decide to hold off on having children, experts say, they can become emotionally attached to their pets and unwilling to give them up without a fight.

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In a country with an estimated 160 million pet owners, some will spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars to press the issue in court.

While only a handful of lawyers across the country specialize in pet-custody issues, a growing number of family law professionals are taking on such cases. Dozens of law schools, including those at Harvard, Yale, Duke, Georgetown and UCLA, offer animal law classes that have segments on pet custody.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund has filed briefs in several divorce cases asking that the pet's best interest be taken into consideration.

Three years ago a Virginia woman, Jennifer Kidwell, who had gone through a three-year legal battle with her ex-husband over their dog, started a Web site to help others involved in pet-custody disputes. In addition to stories about court battles across the country, offers documents pertaining to pet visitation, prenuptial agreements for pet owners and guardianship of pets.

"These days, pets have achieved elevated status in some families. They are truly members of the family," said Nancy Peterson, an issues specialist for the Humane Society of the United States. "So when people separate, it is easy to turn discussions about who will keep the pet into a legal battle. The problem is that courts don't often look at pets in the same way."

For Nichols, who does freelance advertising work from home, the custody battle over five family pets lasted about two years after she filed for divorce from her husband, Thomas Nichols, a United Parcel Service pilot. During eight years of marriage, she said, he was not home enough to care for the animals.

After spending $30,000 on the divorce, much of it on the pet-custody battle, Lynn Nichols ended up with the three dogs and her husband got the two cats. She also got some jail time.

"I hid the cats every time the sheriff's department came to pick them up, and I told them they had run away," Nichols said. "When the judge found out what I was doing, he charged me with contempt. I never thought I would end up in jail. But I was doing what I thought was best to protect my pets."

Nichols did not get any pet visitation rights. She said she has no idea whether the cats, which she adopted as stray kittens, are alive.

"When I think about them, it makes me absolutely heartsick. I have no idea where my ex-husband is or whether Beanie and Kacey are being taken care of," Nichols said. "My vet wrote a letter telling the judge that the dogs and cats should all live together as sibling children in the home they were raised in and with a person who was home all the time with them. But the judge didn't want to hear it."

While that case was extreme, experts said, it has by no means been the only such battle. During the past 10 years there have been several court rulings throughout the country in cases that turned ugly.

"There are a growing number of these cases, and they are a pain," said Peter Borchelt, a New York City animal behaviorist who has testified in a half-dozen cases. "Either they are workable or they are not, depending on how agreeable the parties are. Just like in a child-custody case, most of the time the adult emotions get involved and it gets out of hand."

A judge in St. Louis ruled in one couple's dispute that each would get one of their dogs, and each would have visitation rights to see the other dog. The judge also ordered that the animals, which had spent most of their lives together, would undergo a veterinary evaluation to determine whether they suffered from separation anxiety.

In Colorado Springs, a judge ordered a man to pay $40 a month in pet support for the family dog. The judge said the children were so distraught over the divorce that they needed the pet's companionship.

One of the most publicized cases occurred in San Diego, centering on a pointer-greyhound mix named Gigi who became a central character in Dr. Stanley and Linda Perkins' divorce. Initially the Perkinses were granted joint custody of the dog they had adopted from a shelter, but neither was satisfied with the arrangement.

After a two-year court battle, $150,000 in legal fees, a court-ordered "bonding study" prepared by an animal behaviorist and videotapes showing Gigi lounging at home and having fun at the beach, the judge awarded full custody to Linda Perkins.

Changing laws regarding how pets are viewed legally - now they are personal property in most states - would have to occur state by state or involve a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, said Linda Cawley, a Denver attorney who specializes in animal issues. So far, no case has made it that far.

"It is hard to get courts to deem pets as emotional property. As personal property, owners are entitled to no more than the fair market value of the animal. So it is even hard to sue an airline when a dog dies in cargo," said Cawley, who has handled dozens of court cases in the past 10 years.

But for people such as Nichols, who worry that their pets can't get along without them, Borchelt, the animal behaviorist, has some news.

"One of the biggest misconceptions is that pets have difficulty functioning when they are separated from the owners. Most of the time, it's a whole lot less of a problem for the animals than the people," Borchelt said.

"Within a month or two, the dog is OK. That is evident by the huge number of dogs that come into shelters and are perfectly normal when they get new owners. It's the same way when a person gets a divorce. Once you get married to someone else, everything is fine."

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© 2004, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services