Law and Rover: HB 147 Would Give Pets Special Legal Considerations

Ben Peyerk, the director of animal control and protection at the Gastineau Humane Society, pets a cat named Gouda. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
Ben Peyerk, the director of animal control and protection at the Gastineau Humane Society, pets a cat named Gouda. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Most people don’t want to think of their pets as property. But in court, they are. A bill by Rep. Liz Vazquez likely be back in next year’s legislative session aims to give pets special considerations in the law when it comes to divorce, protective orders and animal seizures.

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The Gastineau Humane Society in Juneau has two dogs, 17 cats and a number of smaller animals, like rabbits, guinea pigs, and a chinchilla—all up for adoption. The laminated profiles of the animals are tacked on a cork board in the lobby.

Sometimes a lot of pets come through their door, like in cases of animal hoarding. And that can cost the shelter tens of thousands of dollars while a court ruling is being decided.

“It’s frankly not fair to house animals in the shelter for the long term,” says Matt Musslewhite, the executive director of the Gastineau Humane Society.

If HB 147 passes, owners in hoarding cases can post a bond to have their pets boarded—pending the outcome of the case. Or they can relinquish them to the shelter. This simplifies the whole process so animals can be adopted faster.

“Yeah. Not only is it better for the animals. It’s fiscally better for the shelter,” Musslewhite says.

The other part of the bill would make the definition of pets, in cases of legal ownership, more clear. Right now, the courts consider pets property, and it’s ambiguous how to handle that.

Kathy Hessler, a professor of animal law at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon, says animals are clearly in the law as property.

“But people don’t treat them in their lives and in there homes as property, and so what that means is their interactions are at odds with the legal framework,” she says.

She testified at a recent hearing in support of the pet bill. She says in cases of divorce and dissolution, property with monetary value, like a house, can be divided. But your precious dog or cat can’t be cut in half.

“So courts are doing all kinds of things because they don’t have statutory guidance and sometimes courts are simply unwilling to make a ruling,” she says.

If HB 147 passes, judges will have the green light to rule in cases of pet ownership, with the understanding that the pet’s overall well-being has to be considered. The legislation doesn’t extend to dog mushing teams which, to the courts, have monetary worth. Pets could also be included as part of a domestic violence restraining order.

“A husband might say to his wife, ‘If you leave me, I’ll kill the dog,’” says Hessler.

Same principle: the judge will have the authority to protect pets as part of a restraining order. Initially, the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault opposed the bill.

“Sometimes I get a little frustrated with these big national movements. …We kind of took care of that 15 years ago,” says Peggy Brown, the network’s executive director.

She says several years ago, the advocacy group worked really hard to make sure pets were included as personal essential items on protective order forms.

“There’s a box that can be checked, it actually says ‘pets’ and then ‘names,’ in case there are more than one pet,” says Brown.

Those existing protective orders are already legally binding. The bill wouldn’t change that. Brown worried that “custody” language in HB 147 could turn pet disputes into ugly court battles, like in family law cases, increasing interactions between the victim and abuser. Brown withdrew her opposition after Rep. Vazquez changed that part of the bill. Brown says if the overall bill reinforces the victim’s ownership of the pet, it’s a good thing.

“It puts it in ink when it was kind of in pencil, I guess is one way you can look at it. Now it’s two different places. It’s in statute and on the protective order forms,” says Brown.

If the pet bill does pass, Alaska will join 28 other states with similar legislation.