David T. Pisarra is a divorce attorney; Steven May is a pet expert. Together they've combined their years of experience with pets, with pet-custody issues in divorces, and with their own "blended families" of exes and pets in their book, "What About Wally?: Co-Parenting a Pet with Your Ex." After a recent wave of news stories about pets treated more like people than like property – humans seeking interment in pet cemeteries; dogs allowed to stay in domestic-violence shelters – Shine Pets wanted to talk to Pisarra and May about the legal status of our companion animals, the craziest pet/divorce situations they've seen, and more. Our conversation appears below.
Shine Pets: Sometimes you see that kids become pawns in this battle at the end of a marriage, and the parents can seem to lose sight of what's best for them, versus how best to score points off each other. Would you say that this happens with pets too? And would you say that it's more frequent or less frequent than it is with children?
David Pisarra: It certainly does happen; there's no question it's easy to use the pets as a pawn, because they don't have a voice per se, it's easy to start using them, by the angrier of the two in a divorce. Now how that relates to the children, I think that the children probably are more frequently used, but that's a matter of numbers, because there are more children involved in divorces.
Steven May: You know, Sarah, from what I've seen and what I've experienced, it's interesting, because when I have seen pets used -- or not used as pawns but involved in the situation, it involves…what I believe sometimes are more in terms of people, a veterinarian may be involved, a trainer's involved; friends are always involved, sometimes pets are placed at friends', and friends are told not to mention that they have the pet, the same as veterinary locations or working locations or grooming or training, so there's a lot of other people that can get involved in this kind of behavior, unfortunately. For children, it's not so closed; there's a fine line between that and abduction and kidnapping and a lot of those stories where one spouse will abduct or kidnap the child, and that's out in the open, but for pets, it's not, there's a lot more players involved.
It seems like we're evolving away from viewing pets strictly as sort of property or furniture, and more towards seeing them as companions and family members; with humans seeking burial in pet cemeteries and stuff like that, it seems like that's what we're trending towards. Do you think this is something the law is going to start evolving towards as well? Do you think that we're going to see explicit changes in how the law views pets in, like, the next five or ten years?
Pisarra: Absolutely, and I think that's already beginning to happen; it's just a question of how much it's gonna pick up over the next five to ten years. If you think about the fact that starting in January of this year, when someone went to court to get a domestic violence restraining order, and now the pets can be covered in that restraining order, whereas you went to court [in the past], they'd just laugh at somebody who said that, we're starting to see pets are having a more emotional impact in relationships. Now, at this point the main reason we're using pets in restraining orders, or covering them, is they don't want to see them used as a tool by this stalking and/or terrorizing partner against the family. So it's designed to protect against abuse against the animal, and I think that over the next five to ten years, as we see this happen more and more, clearly the trend is going to be treating pets to a higher level of care than they're currently receiving.
Do you think that that's going to happen at a legislative level, like in bills, for example? Or do you think it's going to be something that happens via the courts?
Pisarra: I think that for a while we're going to see things happen by decision, it's going to be on a very case-by-case basis, at the trial level, and as that kind of groundswell of concern grows, somebody will introduce a bill into the legislature that will raise the level of care that we provide the pet in the family-law setting, so it's kind of a hybrid answer of "yes and yes"; I think it's going to be case law, and then I think eventually it will become more legislative.
It's sort of received wisdom can be expected to "act out" as a result of disruption and anxiety caused by their parents' split. You mention [in the book] that this is something you have seen in dogs, or pets; how common is this, that the pets react to the emotional disruption? And do some species react more than others? Is this more of a dog thing?
May: That's a really good question. I don't know if it's as much at this point breed-specific, as much as it's their exposure to an environment that – dogs are used to an environment, especially, they respond to very habitual behavior, so, when they're out and getting their walks a couple times a day, engaging with both, let's say, the husband and wife or the couple on a continuous basis, they're used to certain times of the day that they engage in that time, and when that's separated, split, when there's a lot of yelling, or disruption in the pattern in their normal behavior, they react. And they're not always understanding why they're reacting; they just react, based on frustration, based on being scared, you know, all of a sudden there's things thrown in the house and yelling between the spouses – they're gonna react, they're gonna cower, they're gonna hide, and sometimes they act out, they'll start to destroy, and they won't engage like they used to. Many of them will actually get symptoms of illnesses, they'll stop eating, they'll vomit, they'll start to leave presents in the house they didn't normally do, and even when there's a amicable split, and you're very co-positive and co-parenting, you still will see a change, because as much as you're engaging that pet and they're engaging back with you, inevitably there's gonna be an environmental change, because all of a sudden it's like, someone's gonna move out; one may maintain the same household they had during the relationship, but inevitably it's either going to be a new apartment or a new house. And that's a whole nother change, again. So they do react in a certain way, and cats react differently, of course, than dogs, but they are just as sensitive, and they are also creatures of habit, and although pets don't pass judgment, they certainly react to emotional surroundings, so the answer is yes.
It does seem like a dog is sort of the most like a child in terms of the logistical requirements and the planning involved – like they say about toddlers, that they're creatures of habit and you need to stick to a routine? So that's mostly what the book addresses – but do you have any thoughts on feline children of divorce, or how to ease the transition for, say, your monitor lizard? I don't know what range of pets you've seen –
May: To address the kitty issue, they primarily will go through the same level of experience dogs do; they have a keen sense of hiding it a little better, because everyone believes they're a lot more independent, but they do react to environment, they react to, of course, arguing and yelling in the household, and some cats really are incredibly sensitive; you know, you come home and they're in your arms. When my first wife and I split, you know, I had one cat that related to me a lot more, I should say physically, than my ex, but we still do share our cat between both, but you know, they wait at the door, they will experience the same relationship. As far as birds, um, birds and or reptiles, reptiles are pretty much on their own; although they like some human contact, they're not really the ones that are as sensitive as dogs and cats – but birds ARE, and birds understand the bond between humans and themselves. Our birds, we will co-parent in a longer period of time, and we have set up two cages total, one in my location and one in my ex's, and I'll take care of Tequila for about six months, and then Tequila will move over to my ex's for six months. And that bird is just as sensitive, and loving, as let's say a small puppy. So they do share in the experience. But as far as more like caged…I shouldn't say "caged," but like reptiles, that really doesn't make much of a difference, that's more in the emotional gut of a pet parent.
You have a whole page in the book about dog booties for hikes; can you talk about some outlandish requests or requirements that you've seen in pet custody arrangements, and the difficulty of getting everyone on the same page?
Pisarra: I don't know if it's outlandish, but one of the problems my ex and I had when we were dealing with OUR dog, was the fact that when he moved on to his new relationship, his new partner was sharing a dog with HIS ex. So now we had, like, step-dogs, and we had basically four different people involved, and we're trying to coordinate just something as simple as food. Because the dogs, when they would go back and forth from the different homes, where they've got different food, it tastes different so they're gonna overeat, so it was a matter of coordinating three households and four people over two animals, and that was sort of a logistical nightmare there for a while until we got everybody on the same page. In terms of outrageousness? In the first chapter of our book, I talk about how, when my partner and I split, and I knew he was gonna be living part-time in San Francisco and part-time in Los Angeles, I said, "You can take Dudley whenever you want, visitation is not an issue – but the dog does not fly cargo," which actually was the title of the first chapter. And by making that kind of outlandish request, that the dog does not fly cargo, that he always has to fly in the passenger bay, some people view that as kind of extreme; I thought it was kind of important, because I don't want my dog flying in a crate.
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Well, that didn't seem outlandish to me; I was thinking more along the lines of, like, if there's more luxurious accommodations that some parties try to require in these arrangements, that it's like, "It must be this brand of collar with the Swarovski crystals," or if there's anything like that that you'd had to step in and say, "This isn't really about the pet anymore, this is about something else"?
Pisarra: While I'm sure that that probably does happen, I think that when people are engaging in that behavior, it's exactly as you identified. It's really not about the pet. It's really about power in your relationship, and who's gonna keep control. Because I see that same thing with parents in divorces over children: "My child can't be around your new spouse." What's that about? That's about power. So I haven't really seen any outrageous demands along those lines, mostly because when I'm dealing with my clients I'm trying to get them to come to do what's best for the pet, because the goal is to have them sort of become cooperative.
May: I had a pet limo business, a long time ago, and we did 24-hour, 7-day-a-week emergency transportation as well as just pickup and delivery from boarding, grooming, and it was decked out, half ambulance, half limousine. And I remember being involved in one family's dispute, and they had two dogs, and to ensure that each parent would engage with their pets, I remember, I had to meet each other parent every other week at the park. So I was hired to bring their dogs to the park, to make sure that they engage with the family, then pick 'em up, take 'em back over to the other spouse.
So this was like supervised visits, basically?
May: Yeah, that's exactly what it was like! To make sure that the dogs get there, they get to play with the whole family, and A spouse, and it rotated … and it was set up by one of the owners. But I remember it clicking, and all of a sudden it was like, oh my God, this is, they're getting divorced; they didn't bother telling me, but they're just making sure that they're engaging with the dogs, and the kids, equally. And this went on for six months, and I don't think it fizzled out, but I remember they still were a client for years thereafter. But they must have initially gone through some sort of divorce period. But I was hired to pick 'em up, take 'em over to the park, meet one of the parents, stay there for two hours – and you know, I got a chance to engage and play with them, and then I was hired to wait there, pick 'em up, and bring 'em back to the other spouse.
May: It was kind of like dropping a kid off for a soccer game.
May: But, you know, as far as the really outlandish, I know from my experience, those situations, kinda what you're looking at, is out there; I just can't tell you exactly what is done.
Do people generally follow the arrangements once it's straightened out, or have you seen cases where they sort of mis-feed the dog right before he's supposed to go back and then just wait for hell to break loose on the ex's end – do you know what I'm saying, that it's like, "I'm gonna let the dog eat a Cornish hen, and then you can handle the cleanup"?
May: You can deal with the wallpaper design, when you get home? That kind of thing?
Pisarra: Honestly, no, I haven't heard of it; I've sort of experienced it a little bit. We had that issue, I don't think it was intentional, but with dog treats, where because the dog was getting certain treats at the one house, there was gastric distress that was caused, that was causing a problem on my end -- it was one of those where we had the discussion, and it could either go, we're gonna get back on board with this, or we're gonna have mutually assured destruction, because that game can be played by both parties.
"Enjoy this pig ear…"
Pisarra: Once somebody realizes that they're gonna have to deal with it on their end, they sort of snap to and decide that they don't want to play that game.
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Uh huh. Have you ever had to step in in a legal or calling-animal-control way, if two people who were going through a breakup were getting really…I don't know how to put it. That their solution is, we're just gonna curb the cat, we're just gonna take it to a shelter – have you ever had to step in in that way? Does that happen frequently, that the solution to pet custody is "let's get rid of the pet"? Or that's pretty seldom?
May: I have experienced that, in servicing my clients; I've seen certain situations where, you know, the dog was supposed to be picked up at a certain time, and if it wasn't picked up at that time, the house closed down. And unfortunately it was a push-me pull-you between the two exes, and one set the other one up for failure, basically – they were told to pick up the dog at a certain time, and if they missed that time, the gates were locked and the house was closed down, and they went out of town, which was ridiculous, because the dog was in the backyard. And that's losing sight of what's truly important, and jeopardizing the health and the well-being of the dog. And this went on for two, three times, and I mentioned to, actually, both of the owners at the time, they were exes, and I said look, this can't go on, you're gonna have to deal with this because this dog cannot be left alone. And I had access to the house, so I received a phone call from the other ex, said look, I showed up, I can't get in, can you help me out, because this was a client that was pickup and delivery, take care of their pets every other week, it was a regular client, so I had access, but unfortunately, this is the issue about getting involved in a very legal situation, and exposure for me, but what concerned me more was the well-being of the dog and I finally had to file a complaint with the Department of Animal Care and Control, because at this point this was very abusive of the animal. And they came out, filed a report … the Humane Society came out and straightened those two out very quickly, because you can't do that, and that's literally playing one against the other with jeopardizing the dog in the middle. So it does happen – and it's unfortunate. And they don't realize the trickle-down effect of what happens, and the thought of actually leaving that dog alone and exposed for the night is unacceptable.
Pisarra: I've got a story for ya – I had a couple, they were divorcing and the wife had a LOT of anger towards her ex-husband, so she decided that she was gonna take the dog and give it to the pound – forty miles away. That the dog would just go and be euthanized.
Pisarra: When it went to the pound, they do what they always do and they wand the dog, and they found the microchip, and the microchip was thankfully registered in MY client's name. So they called him and said we've got your dog. He drove all the way out there, got his dog, but…that's the sort of behavior people will engage in, where yes, they are willing to put the dog down JUST to get back at the ex. It's very sad when those situations happen because there were children involved and the children were in love with the dog, so obviously they had to explain what happened to the dog.
Oh, boy. "He's living on a farm"? Yeah.
In that case where you did call Animal Control, did that sort of snap everyone into focus that what they were doing was harming the pet, or they were so "in it" emotionally that they still weren't getting it?
May: A little of both – they were in it emotionally, and I was threatened by one of the exes, legally, and I had to seek a little legal counsel at that time, but I have a responsibility, both for the field I'm in and the pets I take care of, and eventually it snapped them into place, because you're starting to deal with law enforcement at this time, and when you break it down, it's a very serious issue, especially within the state of California, they take that very seriously when you start to deal with abuse, and that's including animal abuse, not just child abuse. Yeah, so, they eventually snapped into it; I don't know how it actually ended, to be honest with you, I heard from one of the owners probably a month or so, maybe six weeks later, and they said they had worked it out, and asked if I wanted to continue, and I said I'm happy to continue service in regards to pickup and delivery for their pets' care, to the vet and grooming and all the rest of it, but I didn't engage in going back and forth anymore, because it was too much. But I did speak eventually to the humane officers – actually I got a follow-up documentation, a letter that came to me, that I was supposed to come forward, and any time that I serviced the animal to copy my file for their records, so…I'm pretty sure they snapped right back into it. It's another layer; I think out of just human behavior that people look at how childish they really can be, and who they really can affect, and I gotta believe it scared 'em. I know it did for the one parent; I never talked to the other one. Long-winded answer, but: yes.
Because sometimes in breakups I think we've all been in that just bonkers place where you're not thinking clearly, and you hope that once the law shows up and is like, "You can't be leaving your dog chained up outside for two days," that then they realize.
Some people never get it, but that's a whole different interview.
May: Some people never learn, but usually what happens is, deep down in their hearts, there's a love there for their dog; there was initially and there always will be really, and this overwhelming level of guilt starts to come over the pet owner – you know, "What am I doing?" And they realize, oh gosh. But it is not uncommon, I gotta tell you, it is definitely not uncommon for restraining orders to end up at veterinary hospitals or boarding facilities, because initially on breakups, you know, one spouse covers all the bases, and makes sure that -- they want to protect, or not allow the ex to see the animal, they will go through all that documentation that gives them the right resources. I remember even when I was doing a lot of practice management at pet hospitals, we used to see restraining orders come all the time. And usually, the ex didn't know about it, 'til they called. So I don't know if they used that situation as a pawn, or they just do it, you know, just as part of the normal routine – Dave, you're gonna have to guide me on that one, but it is not uncommon, like I said earlier in the conversation, there's a lot of entities with pets that are touched, and those are, you know, a lot of families'll have trainers, long-term trainers, not just the initial couple weeks obedience training in the beginning but they'll be training for years down the line, and they're involved in those splits as well. And hopefully in a positive manner, because when that happens, at least you have your trainer close to you, and they can help with the adjustment of the initial split.
And keep sort of one common factor. David, do you want to address how common it is to have just sort of a blanket restraining order like that that applies to the pets and whether, once things settle down, do those tend to be lifted?
Pisarra: It's kind of a new thing right now with them being covered under the California new version of the restraining orders. So yes, we do have those; we're in sort of a new area at the moment, I don't really have a whole lot of information for you on that. Steven's really more the expert on that at this point.
Because that seems like sort of a thing that's gonna be evolving, like I said before.
Pisarra: Yeah, it's definitely gonna grow over the next five to ten years; we're gonna see a lot of changes happening. It's just a question of what it's gonna look like.
May: In the conferences that I do attend, the veterinary conferences, already I've seen an increase in regards to animal law, those lectures that are coming out, and articles – so it is definitely a change that's come down, and it's actually to fruition, in regards to responsible ownership "in the event of," and that "event of" will cover anything from, obviously, a split in the relationship all the way down to abuse, to punitive damages for malpractice, so every area of animal law is beginning to – wake up, I should say. I don't know if that's the right term, but: "come to fruition."
May: And a lot of those situations touch each other, so you can have certain situations where your pet is obviously being co-parented and is going in for a serious surgery, one parent says "let's do it" and the other one says "no way." And so what happens – and inevitably that has to be sorted out, and it has to be sorted out VERY quickly, because who suffers is the pet, and maybe they need that surgery or treatment or et cetera. And that's not uncommon, that one parent wants to move forward with cancer therapy and the other says, "No way, I'm not putting my dog through that." And it becomes a very ugly battle. At least when they were together and they were living together and the relationship was happy and strong, they could talk and work it out. But somehow when that splits, you start to get a very push-me pull-you answer, and those are the type of critical situations that have to move very fast, so the veterinarian gets involved, unfortunately, and when there's all that legal overhead about documentation involved and restraining orders, inevitably one of the parents is going to have to take a step forward and say we're doing it or we're not doing it.
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