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Alaskan Pets Get Legal Protection in Divorce, Domestic Violence Cases

— February 17, 2017

Due to a recent, and frankly overdue, change to a law covering divorce and domestic violence cases, Alaskan pets get legal protection that elevates them from being considered as mere property in such instances. Alaska is the first state to pass a law requiring judges to take “into consideration the well-being of the animal.” Hopefully, this is the beginning of a trend.

Due to a recent, and frankly overdue, change to a law covering divorce and domestic violence cases, Alaskan pets get legal protection that elevates them from being considered as mere property in such instances. Alaska is the first state to pass a law requiring judges to take “into consideration the well-being of the animal.” Hopefully, this is the beginning of a trend.

The legal system has long considered pets and companion animals as property. Therefore, in a divorce case, Fido and Fluffy get no more consideration than your toaster and coffeemaker. Animal lovers, like me, consider pets as being part of the family, not something akin to an appliance. The legal system typically looks to what’s best for the humans involved when it comes to property division in divorces and protection orders in domestic violence cases.

Under the amended law, judges are now required to take “into consideration the well-being of the animal.” It also gives judges the authority to award joint custody of pets and to give pets coverage in domestic violence protection orders. The owners of pets who are seized in neglect or cruelty cases must now pay the cost of the pets’ shelter and care after removal from the home.

Former representative Liz Vazquez (R) and the late representative Max Gruenberg (D) sponsored the amendment. Mr. Gruenberg, in his work as a family lawyer, once worked a divorce case in which the parties were awarded joint custody of a sled dog team. Ms. Vazquez said, “Our pets are members of our families. We have to remember that we’re sent here to Juneau to represent people; real human beings, many of whom have pets they love as much as their friends and family.”

She is joined in that sentiment by Kathy Hessler, the director of the Animal Law Clinic at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Ms. Hessler said, “The relationship with the animal is what is important in the family law context, so the property law analysis tends to be a poor fit for resolving disputes, and in fact, many of the property settlement agreements are continuously disputed, making more work for the courts.”

Also supportive of this groundbreaking change is law professor David Favre of Michigan State University. In an interview with the Washington Post, Prof. Favre said, “For the first time, a state has specifically said that a companion animal has visibility in a divorce proceeding beyond that of property—that the court may award custody on the basis of what is best for the dog, not the human owners.”

After reading the text of the law, some things were unclear to me. Prof. Favre was kind enough to give me an email interview recently to address those issues.

Prof. David Favre; image courtesy of
Prof. David Favre; image courtesy of

The law obviously addresses animals’ safety and the humans’ ability to provide care and shelter. However, “well-being” was not expressly defined in the text of the law. This leaves it open to interpretation by Alaskan courts. Prof. Favre believes that “well-being will take on two primary components: physical & psychological. Not only who can provide for the physical needs but who can best provide quality of life. Who will spend time with the animal, maybe just rubbing a tummy or going for a walk. Who will pay attention to the animal?”

The domestic violence provisions in the law require abusers to cover the costs of care and shelter for animals removed from the home. This has the potential to be a costly bill and I asked Prof. Favre if he thought it might have any impact on reducing the number of domestic violence cases involving animals, as people tend to want to avoid such expenses. He said, “It is not my sense that these provisions inhibit much domestic violence but provide the tools to deal with it afterward.”

While it would be nice to see a reduction in abuse cases, the law does provide for removal and protection of the animals involved, which is much more than was possible prior to the amendment.

Traditionalists believe there’s nothing wrong with treating animals as property. When asked about any potential resistance to the increase in animal rights provided by the law, Prof. Favre responded, “I think millions of humans already think companion animals are part of their family and that this is simply being fair to the companion animal, who seldom bears any responsibility for the humans falling apart. I do not see a backlash; it is the right thing to do.”

He added, “This law will be replicated in other states in the future as it represents the slow march forward for animals in the legal system. While they will remain property, they will continue to grow in visibly and personality within the law.”

I am grateful for Prof. Favre’s time and answers and I truly hope that we do see more laws like the one in Alaska. We cannot simultaneously call Fido and Fluffy our fur-babies and continue to treat them like furniture under the law.

From the MSU Law website, Prof. Favre’s biography:

Prior to joining the Law College faculty in 1976, Professor Favre was a practicing attorney in Virginia. He has written several articles and books dealing with animal issues including such topics as animal cruelty, wildlife law, the use of animals for scientific research, and international control of animal trade. His books include Animal Law and Dog Behavior, Animal Law: Welfare, Interest, and Rights, and International Trade in Endangered Species. He also has presented to international audiences on these topics. He is a national officer of the Animal Legal Defense Fund and of the ABA Committee on Animal Law. He served as interim dean of the Law College from 1993 to 1996 and from 1999 to 2000. He teaches Property, International Environmental Law, Wildlife Law, and Animal Law.


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