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A divorcing couple asked a judge to treat their dogs like children.Here is his reply.
“Dogs are wonderful creatures,” read the first line of a ruling
from a Canadian judge.
Over the next paragraph, the judge continued singing the praises
of man’s best friend: Dogs are often highly intelligent, he
wrote. Sensitive. Active. Constant and faithful companions.
“Many dogs are treated as members of the family with whom they
live,” the judge noted.
But none of that matters when it comes to the court of law,
concluded Justice Richard Danyliuk of the Court of Queen’s Bench
for Saskatchewan. At least not in his court of law.
[How much is a pet dog worth? A court will soon decide.]
“After all is said and done, a dog is a dog,” Danyliuk wrote in
an August ruling that was recently reported by CBC News. “At law
it is property, a domesticated animal that is owned. At law it
enjoys no familial rights.”
Danyliuk would spend 15 more pages outlining why — in this case
of a divorcing couple arguing over what would become of their
pets — the court could not treat the dogs in question as
The case landed in court after the wife argued that she should
keep their three dogs — 13-year-old Quill, 9-year-old Kenya and
2-year-old Willow — while allowing for visitation rights of an
hour-and-a-half at a time to her soon-to-be ex-husband.
Danyliuk noted that the woman’s request was “more akin to an
interim custody disposition than it is to a property order” and
that he could not comply, because for legal purposes, dogs must
be treated as property.
[Your dog is watching you very carefully and remembers what you
He was firm in his ruling.
“I say without reservation that the prospect of treating pets as
children would be treated holds absolutely no attraction for
me,” Danyliuk wrote, while acknowledging that many dog owners do
treat their dogs as family members. “My present task is not to
act with emotion or to validate the personal perspective of pet
owners within the legal context. Rather, it is to interpret and
then apply the law. And for legal purposes, there can be no
doubt: Dogs are property.”
Danyliuk elaborated further by citing other cases and arguing
that dealing humanely with pets and considering them property
were not mutually exclusive.
In one section of the ruling, Danyliuk used what he called a
“somewhat ridiculous example” of butter knives to make his point
about “what I see as a somewhat ridiculous application.”
“I strongly suspect these parties had other personal property,
including household goods,” he wrote. “Am I to make an order
that one party have interim possession of (for example) the
family butter knives but, due to a deep attachment to both
butter and those knives, order that the other party have limited
access to those knives for 1.5 hours per week to butter his or
Danyliuk suggested that the case should have never landed in his
courtroom in the first place.
“I am sure that to [the divorcing couple], this is the most
important matter,” Danyliuk wrote. But, he added: “To consume
scarce judicial resources with this matter is wasteful. In my
view, such applications should be discouraged.”
David Grimm, author of “Citizen Canine: Our Evolving
Relationship With Cats and Dogs,” said Danyliuk’s ruling is not
unusual, because under U.S. and Canadian laws, animals are
“Which means that they basically legally have the same status as
a couch or a toaster,” Grimm told The Washington Post. “That’s
what it is sort of in theory.”
In practice, however, things can become muddled — particularly
when it comes to household companion animals like cats and dogs.
In his book, which covers the evolving status pets have had
within the U.S. legal system, Grimm noted that pets can now be
beneficiaries of trusts in most American states. In a few, rare
instances, some animals have been assigned lawyers.
[DNA evidence helps free a service dog from death row]
In addition, Grimm also noted that all 50 states have felony
animal cruelty laws, and punishments in animal abuse cases are
up to 10 years in prison or $125,000 in fines in some states.
“Clearly, nobody’s going to fine you for setting your couch on
fire or taking a bat to your toaster,” Grimm said. “There are
things like that where clearly the law is treating animals .?.?.
differently than other types of property.”
That was not the case in the 1800s, however, when animal anti-
cruelty legislation described the offense as a misdemeanor at
first. Only in the last 20 to 30 years did animal cruelty become
a felony offense, he said.
That evolution has, in part, mirrored people’s changing
relationship with their household pets. People in the United
States spent more than $60 billion on their pets in 2015, a
figure that has increased steadily from about $20 billion more
than two decades ago, according to the American Pet Products
These days, dogs (and, to some extent, cats) might be sent to
doggy day care, eat organic pet food, attend pet spas and watch
dedicated TV channels. They wear clothing, appear in family
photos and participate in rituals and activities — vacations,
weddings, funerals — people typically reserve for other human
“We’ve sort of reached this really interesting relationship with
our companion animals,” Grimm said. “Just because we treat pets
like children [at home], does that mean we should treat them
like children in the eyes of the law? And I think that’s causing
a lot of divisions among legal scholars and in the general
[How do dogs’ genes affect their behavior? Your pet could help
scientists find out.]
The Animal Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit that advocates for
animals’ legal interests, has argued that considering pets
strictly as property is too narrow of a view.
Anti-cruelty laws do not exist for toasters, evidence that the
law recognizes that animals deserve special protection,
according to ALDF attorney Stefanie Wilson.
At least one state — Alaska — has, by law, empowered courts in
divorce proceedings to consider the animal’s well-being in
making a custody determination, she added.
“Arguably, almost all courts have the discretion and authority,
in a divorce case, to appoint a special guardian or master to
consider and make recommendations for the best outcome for
Fido,” Wilson wrote in an email to The Post. “The law is
starting to catch up to the reality of the special place that
our pets hold in our lives and in society.”
Grimm expects to see rulings over dogs in divorce cases continue
to evolve, albeit more slowly than, say, animal cruelty laws did.
“Is it right that a judge says that that cat is a piece of
property? I think in the next few decades, this is probably
where the relationship with our companion animals is going to
get really interesting,” he said. “Decisions like this will play
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