By Sue Lambert
I just finished watching a documentary called Mine. It follows the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the vast number of displaced pets. Forced to leave their pets behind during mass emergency evacuations, this movie portrays the anguish and sadness of owners separated from their beloved pets and the lengths many of them went to, to be reunited. Most had been placed into new families in other states. Thankfully, many of the new owners relinquished their pets back to the original owners, recognizing the great bond they had once had and the extreme sense of loss they had suffered. Sadly, many owners were never reunited with their pets and many are still to this day searching. Thankfully, shortly after Katrina, a new law was passed to ensure that all pets be included in future disaster evacuation plans, Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standard Act (PETS).
I was glued to this documentary, it was so interesting to me, to see how lawsuits ensued because two people who both claimed to love the pet could not reach an amicable resolution of where and who the pet should live with. It was similar to the emotional custody battles that occur in divorce over children. Unfortunately pets are still classified as property and can be divided as such.
It may seem unromantic to get a prenuptial, and or to decide who owns which pet prior to marriage, but with divorce rates higher than 50% it could save a lot of heartache, emotional anguish and money. Yes, I speak from personal experience. Sadly, my dog Sasha became a huge negotiation tool in my divorce, probably because I wore my heart on my sleeve and it was obvious I didn’t want to be without her.
My friends playfully referred to my husband as “weekend dad”, because of long work hours he didn’t spend much time with her and when he did his approach was far more disciplinary than affectionate. Insisting she walked on his left side and heeled, constantly pulling and commanding her to do so, made any walk together utterly joyless.
For the year prior to our separation Sasha came to work with me every day, I walked her, fed her, and stayed up all night with when she was sick. I wanted her to be in every part of our life including the couch and bed. My husband put up barriers to prevent her from being where she shouldn’t, using, the item she feared most, an umbrella opened and placed on the couch to repel her. I know pet owners fall into two camps on whether pets should be on the bed and couch or not, in my world, why have a dog if you are not going to fully integrate them into your life including your couch!
Despite our different parenting styles, at first I was agreeable to shared “custody” or ownership. She was officially our dog and I thought it was the right thing to do. I agreed to his initial request for one weekend a month with him taking full financial responsibility for her vet bills etc. I was thankful he recognized and respected that it made sense for her to remain with me in the week. Unfortunately after just one long tearful weekend apart, where on meeting up to hand her over, he said impatiently “ just give me the animal” I was convinced I had made a mistake. Once he knew how hard it was for me to be apart from Sasha he decided he wanted to increase his time with her or be compensated financially if I wanted full “custody”. Essentially with the help of a lawyer he used our dog as a pawn to emotionally manipulate me and get what he wanted financially. Awesome. They say you don’t know someone until you go on vacation with them, let me add to that, you don’t know someone until you divorce them!
Thankfully time really does heal heals all wounds, well almost. Four years later I understand and accept actions can be fueled by hurt and a desire to hurt. I don’t regret the financial decisions I made to gain full ownership of Sasha. You can always make more money, but there is only one Sasha! I am grateful for the companionship, affection, and loyalty that she provides and I know she is happy with me. There are so many things in life that money can’t buy and I am so grateful to know that. Sometimes the smallest things bring the greatest joy, like the first leaves of fall or a gentle kiss from your dog!
Watching the tearful reunions of pets and their owners in Mine, was a huge reminder of this and I highly recommend watching it. As you reflect on all you are grateful for this Thanksgiving, I hope you recognize the role your pets play in your life and your happiness. I hope if you are ever faced with the tough decision of divorce or separation and how to manage shared care of your pets you will be able to make the choice that is right for your pet and that brings them the most joy.
This is a reprint of Lambert’s November 2011 column. Sasha is now living the good life at a spry 13 years old. Sue is the Operations Manager for Doggywalker.com, a professional pet-sitting company located in Old town Alexandria, providing daily walks and customized in-home pet care. Celebrating 15 years in business, visitwww.doggywalker.com or email email@example.com. She lives with 4 rescue pets, Sasha and three cats, Yuki, Stink-Eye and Snowball. She volunteers as a Mobile Adoption Counselor at King St Cats. Visitwww.kingstreetcats.org for more information.