National Post

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Wednesday, August 25, 1999

A doggie needs two loving parents
Joint pet custody
Alexandra Zissu
The New York Times

Philip Greenberg, the New York Times
Luca and her owners have a successful joint custody arrangement.

NEW YORK - Luca was in heaven. It was a summer evening, and the Staffordshire terrier sat on a couch between Michael Cecchi and Jennifer McConnell. As the couple talked, they constantly patted Luca, who responded by licking their lips.

A happier domestic scene you could not find. But there was a catch: Cecchi and McConnell broke up three years ago. They have continued to share Luca, who is white with grey-brown circles around her eyes. The couch belongs to McConnell.

Six years ago, Cecchi, an actor, had rescued a mangy Luca from a kennel in New Jersey. Her ears had been clipped, leading her new owners to believe she had been trained to fight. Together, they nursed her back to health, consulting trainers and even a self-described animal psychic about Luca's aggressive tendencies.

The psychic told them that when Luca was still nursing, two pit bulls broke into the dark basement where she was kept and killed her mother and another puppy. "And that is the trauma," Cecchi said. "For her, with other dogs, it is kill or be killed. It is a survival instinct."

Luca whined. "She knows I am telling this story," Cecchi said. He cooed sympathetically, "I know, honey."

Any couple so involved with their pet -- Cecchi once stayed home with the dog on Thanksgiving rather than leave her alone, and McConnell has the framed picture to prove it -- are not going to find it easy to decide ownership after a breakup.

Increasingly, they don't have to. More and more couples appear to be arranging what might be called joint pet custody. Stephanie Lafarge, a psychotherapist based at the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals office on New York's East 92nd Street, counsels adults about animal issues and said she had seen 10 couples who arranged joint pet custody in the last two years.

"Joint custody is terrific if it is not another excuse for fighting and prolonging the separation," Lafarge said. When Cecchi and McConnell were on the rocks three years ago, Lafarge was their couples therapist, and at the time she advised against joint custody of Luca, warning it could be hard.

But Cecchi and McConnell ignored her, believing that Luca's happiness was all-important. When McConnell moved out and into her own apartment, Cecchi stayed over for several nights to "transition" Luca. "Any new place feels threatening," said McConnell, a software writer. "We didn't want her to be anxious. We got the same bed so she would have it in both places."

Two months ago, Cecchi's current girlfriend moved in with him -- but first he sought the dog's approval. "I said, 'Look, Luca, it is your apartment. If you would let her move in, that would be great,' " Cecchi recalled. "My girlfriend had a hard time. Luca would go through her purse."

After three years of casually sharing Luca, McConnell asked for a formal custody arrangement -- three nights a week with her, four with Cecchi. "I suddenly had these stepmom feelings," she said with a laugh. "I didn't want to be replaced!" She paused. "I am over that now."

It is hard to gauge how many people have joint pet custody or to generalize about arrangements; people are intensely private about breakups. Arthur I. Hirsch, a divorce lawyer, said pet custody comes up in one out of 20 divorces, but true joint custody is rare.

"Sometimes, it goes through the same emotional battle as with children," he said. "Then the court has to intervene, rule on who gets the parrot. Both parties will offer their version of why they are the best. They may have witnesses, neighbours who say, 'The father beat the dog,' or 'The mother kissed the dog.' I have heard the story of a case where both parties were in the courtroom, with the dog in the middle, to see which way it would go. They both whistled and called." Hirsch laughed. The dog ran to the husband. "It was not the deciding factor, but it was one of the factors," he said.

Most separating couples considering joint pet custody avoid the courts because pets are considered property under the law and not subject to the rules for child custody. Divorce lawyer Raoul Felder said, "The problem is the law treats pets as a thing and people don't."

To which Kathy Yates would say amen. When Yates and her husband separated in March after four years of marriage, they decided to share Mia, a black and tan mutt they adopted from a pound after their first dog died. "We had gone through a lot with dogs, and we both knew we loved Mia," Yates said.

So Mia stays with Yates, a teacher of Feldenkrais physical therapy, during the week, and with her estranged husband on weekends. "He goes to the country a lot, and I think that is nice for her," Yates said.

Still, handing off the pet between them is never easy. "I always have this feeling that Mia is trying to get us together," Yates said. "She gets very excited when we meet and very agitated when one of us leaves. I am sure I am projecting partly."

A new movie with Janeane Garofalo, Dog Park, which opens on Sept. 24, turns on the subject of joint pet custody: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy must share his dog, Mogley, with former girlfriend. The twist in the romantic comedy, written and directed by Bruce McCulloch, is that Mogley is traumatized by witnessing the enthusiastic love life of the hero's former girlfriend and must visit an animal therapist.

This is a subject that interests Lafarge, the ASPCA's (human) therapist. "If the dog was part of the couple's intimate life, at the time of the breakup that would be an issue," she said. "Ask any couple with a pet where it sleeps. More often than not it sleeps in the bedroom. Then ask where the pet is when they are having intercourse, and you enter a new realm."

McCulloch, an alumnus of Kids in the Hall, has never had joint pet custody. "I wrote the film because it seems like a social phenomenon in a sense," he said. "It is also one of those nice things, it is like a big secret. People come out and say, 'That happened to me!' The other side of my film is that dogs keep us practised in love. Single people have dogs, and that is where their love goes. When someone comes into the relationship, it is complicated."

If the emotions surrounding pet-sharing seem extreme, it is because for some, owning a dog or cat is a kind of parenthood.

"There are lots of people who don't have children, and their animals are their children," said Joseph Olshan, a novelist who lives in Vermont. His five-year arrangement to share Virgil, a lanky Labrador retriever mix, with a former lover in New York City, deteriorated into a "rancorous situation," he said, adding, "It is difficult to maintain niceties with someone when your only connection is a dog."

Despite the tensions, Olshan continued to drive Virgil back and forth between Vermont and the city. "I felt we had no choice," he said. "It wouldn't be fair for the dog to be with one or the other."

Then, two years ago, before a scheduled handoff, Olshan's former partner, whom he declined to name, called to say the arrangement wasn't working. Olshan handed over the dog, but when he tried to see Virgil again, his ex told him the custody was off. Olshan never saw Virgil again. "It was awful," he said. "I feel like there is no remedy. Society hasn't developed one to protect people. I still miss Virgil terribly."

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