Bones of Contention: When a Marriage Goes to the Dogs

When a Marriage Goes to the Dogs – Who Gets Custody of the Pets Causes Much Acrimony; A Dachshund’s Sad Tale

TheWall Street Journal
Rochelle Sharpe

Steve Morris admits his marriage lasted longer than he thought it would – because of Jolson.

He just couldn’t bear to leave the little guy. After all, Jolson had been with him on his wedding night nine years ago at the Pierre Hotel in New York. But Mr. Morris didn’t think he would get custody of Jolson, either – let alone persuade a judge to hear his case. Jolson is a dog.

When Mr. Morris and his wife divorced five years ago, they agreed to joint custody, with Mr. Morris getting Jolson on weekdays.

“It’s really easy to ridicule the situation. But if you love a dog, it becomes a member of your family,” says Mr. Morris, a 40-year-old screenwriter in Santa Monica, Calif. He is now writing a romantic comedy focusing on the fluffy white “bichon frise.” “It’s bad enough with kids. But someday kids will grow up and understand what happened to them. Dogs will just feel the pain.”

Such attitudes aren’t unusual these days, as animal enthusiasts become more willing to admit – and act on – feelings about their pets. Some pet owners now hire lawyers to fight for animal custody.

Dogs often trigger the most ferocious custody disputes, in part because they are more demonstrative and seemingly more emotionally dependent than other animals. But people wage battles all over the animal kingdom, fighting for cats, parrots, even snakes, sometimes spending $10,000 or more to win custody.

While judges remain reluctant to hear such cases, some are starting to regard pets as more than chattel and will consider the animals’ best interests. In one Florida case, a Dade County judge made a house call to see whether a Doberman pinscher had enough shade in the yard and easy access to the house, says Roger Galvin, a Rockville, Md., criminal attorney who now devotes nearly a third of his practice to disputes over animals.

Most warring animal lovers negotiate out-of-court settlements establishing not just custody arrangements but visitation rights and pet support. Jane Stern, executive director of Chicago’s Anti-Cruelty Society for animals, volunteered to pay her former husband about $135 a month in dog support in exchange for visitation and dog-sitting privileges. “This is my way of still being a part of his life,” Ms. Stern says of Rowdy, her collie.

She and her ex-husband agreed that whoever remained in the couple’s condominium would keep Rowdy, so as to give him as much stability as possible. “I see enough dogs come into the Anti-Cruelty Society through divorce, and they don’t know what’s going on,” she says, conceding that giving up the dog was the hardest part of a collapsing marriage.

Dogs may suffer depression after divorce, even as couples do, says Michael Fox, a vice president of the Humane Society of the U.S. They may refuse to eat, mutilate themselves, wreak havoc on the house and become extremely possessive. Carrying around their old master’s sweater is one symptom.

In divorces, couples often use animals to win other concessions, with one spouse threatening to keep the pet unless he or she gets the apartment or more child support. Animals are potent weapons, since they are sometimes the closest friend a person has after a painful breakup. “The one thing that’s not abandoning you is your pet,” says Susan Cohen, director of counseling at the Animal Medical Center in New York. “To have someone interfere with that relationship is really a terrible thing.”

Disputes between strangers can be just as agonizing, as is demonstrated by one recent New Jersey case involving a dog adoption gone bad. In this saga, Joshua Marcus and his family decided to give away their dog after learning that Mrs. Marcus was pregnant with a third child. To comfort his son and daughter, Mr. Marcus says he promised to find someone who would let the children visit their apricot poodle, Simintov, which means “Good Sign” in Hebrew.

The Marcus’s pet groomer, Bonnie Riso, found a home for the well-bred dog, and the new owner, Margaret Perry, allowed the children to see her pet once. Nearly nine months later, Mr. Marcus says, he requested a second visit, but Mrs. Perry refused. She says the Marcuses didn’t say anything about visitation until after she had taken the dog.

Six-year-old Abigail Marcus was distraught. “I got him when he was a puppy,” she says. “I was like his mother.”

After it became clear that the visits were off, Mr. Marcus decided to sue for breach of an oral contract. He consulted a retired judge to determine whether the matter would be deemed too frivolous for a lawsuit, and then proceeded. “We did this only because we loved our kids,” he says. “We didn’t want them to think they didn’t have any rights.”

The Perrys, who contend the Marcuses were harassing them, say they decided to fight back as a matter of principle and because they had developed an emotional attachment to the dog. “It became apparent to me these people lied to their children to ease the separation,” says Joseph Perry, who spent $6,000 on legal fees in opposing the visitation.

One year of legal negotiations later, Ms. Riso offered a solution: Let the Marcuses visit the poodle during its regular grooming sessions at her shop, Canine Designs. The Perrys agreed to six 10-minute reunions, supervised by Ms. Riso. Abigail had her first 10-minute visit one recent Saturday. “I was really, really, really, really, really, really glad,” says Abigail, who now has another poodle, Mitch, named after her attorney, Mitchell Liebowitz.

Dog capers can’t always be negotiated to pet lovers’ satisfaction. Harrison Miller, of Rockville, Md., fled with a little black mutt named Buttons that he co-owned with his neighbor, Rockville City Councilman James Marrinan, after the two got into an argument about politics.

“I was on the lam till I could figure out what I could do to get possession of this little animal,” says Mr. Miller, who spent six months driving to Florida, up through the Midwest, and then back to Florida before private investigators tracked him down and made off with Buttons. (At that point, Mr. Miller had yet to locate the check proving that he had paid for half a dog.) He hasn’t seen Buttons since and misses the friend he used to take for rides on airplanes, motorcycles and boats.

All of which makes Mr. Morris’s arrangement with his ex-wife in California seem extremely civilized. Better Friends Now Mr. Morris, known around town as “the man with 2 1/2 dogs,” now lets his wife keep Jolson most of the time since he has remarried and has two other dogs and a two-year-old child. He hired an animal behaviorist to help Jolson adjust to his step-siblings. And he and his ex-wife, Beth Kotler, both say the dog has strengthened their relationship as divorced people.

When Jolson developed cataracts, Mr. Morris and Ms. Kotler spent a lot of time together in doctors’ offices talking about their lives. Both anxiously waited through the surgery and went into the recovery room to help ease Jolson out of the anesthesia. “It made me love Steve for the daddy he was to his dog,” she says. “I started caring for him as a friend.”

Of course, not all dog stories have such happy endings. One New York couple undergoing a bitter divorce ended up taking their argument over their dachshund to a local animal hospital, says Maureen Fredrickson, who was a pet counselor there at the time. Neither husband nor wife trusted the other to take care of the dog, she said, so they had it destroyed.

“I was very glad they didn’t have children,” she says.