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Law reform redefines 'animal status': Pet custody battles, 'orphaned' pet caregivers, and other welfare issues
Tuesday, October 12, 2021 @ 7:13 PM

A CIVIL Code reform will mean domestic animals' welfare is considered where their owners divorce, and judges have the power to decide custody and access régimes in the event of dispute.

An earlier legislation change finally recognised animals as 'sentient beings' rather than 'assets' or 'objects', meaning they cannot be embargoed in the event of an owner's debts, but the latest amendment will go one step further.

It means that pets are classed as 'living beings with sensitivity and feelings', and their owners' emotional relationship to them becomes a legal matter.

Where a couple divorces or goes through a legal separation, if they cannot agree on who keeps their joint pets, a court will decide this based upon the animals' best interests, including, where appropriate, access for the party who does not have custody, or impose a 'shared custody' régime in the same way as would be the case with any underage children the couple has in common.

Selling pets – dogs, cats, horses, rabbits or similar – in the event of a divorce or separation, the way a jointly-owned house may be sold, will now become illegal, unless both parties to the couple give their consent.

Also, judges may deny custody or access to one half of the couple to their human children if this person has been charged with animal cruelty, or even the threat of this.

The basis for the ruling is that animal abusers frequently go on to become violent towards humans, and threatened or actual violence towards pets is not uncommon in abusive relationships between couples.

In the same way as threatened or actual violence towards children the couple have in common, or towards a partner's children, is considered 'vicarious domestic abuse' – seeking to hurt the other adult by targeting the child – this behaviour towards a pet with the same aim will be considered 'vicarious violence'.

Whether the victim of this vicarious violence is an animal or a child, the abuser will be refused custody of or access to both.

The new legal status of domestic animals also means the courts can decide who will be their full-time carer if the owner dies and has not stated his or her wishes in life.

Given that the emotional relationship between a human and his or her animals is now set to be a legal consideration, the law dictates that if anyone finds a pet and the owner can be traced, the animal must be returned to them, unless the finder has grounds to believe neglect or cruelty has been involved.



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