Halifax court muses about rights of pets


HALIFAX – A Halifax adjudicator is lamenting that the law treats pets as chattels, musing aloud about a more perfect world in which they could be recognized as living, feeling creatures with rights and needs.

Eric Slone, an adjudicator with Nova Scotia’s small claims court, wrote wistfully about the nature of humans’ relationship with their pets in a ruling that awarded custody of a nine-year-old, mixed-breed dog named Lily.

Slone noted he has decided other such cases and was being forced to rule again on who gets custody of a family pet because there is nowhere else for people to go with such disputes.

“In a more perfect world there would be special laws recognizing pets as living, feeling creatures with rights to be looked after by those who best meet their needs or interests, and there would be specialized accessible courts to determine the ‘best interest of the dog,’ as there are for children in the family courts,” he said in a written ruling released this week.

“In this less perfect world, there is the small claims court operating on principles of property law, treating pets as ‘chattels’ not very different — legally speaking — from the family car.”

Slone heard the case of a former Halifax-area couple who he said never discussed the ownership of Lily, who is part duck toller, until their relationship disintegrated.

The woman, a volunteer SPCA dog walker, bought Lily in 2009, at a time she and her boyfriend were not living together. They later adopted a second dog, Cooper, while living together and that dog and Lily became “very bonded,” Slone said.

The boyfriend took Cooper with him when the couple broke up in 2012, and the two traded Lily back and forth for years. But they argued about how to handle some health issues, and increasingly about custody.

In March 2017, it all came to a head when the man sought to pick Lily up from his ex-girlfriend’s house, prompting an argument and ending with him calling Lily to his car and driving off. He refused to return her, so she took him to small claims court.

In his ruling, Slone said the woman may have had the strongest ownership claim at first, but that changed over time. He noted that Lily ran to the man on that emotionally charged day in March 2017.

“It is telling and ironic that the immediate and perhaps ultimate decision was made by Lily herself,” Slone said.

The man had paid thousands of dollars in vet bills, Slone said, and became the predominate human in Lily’s life. He considered himself “the ‘alpha’ in Lily’s pack,” the adjudicator noted.

“Determining ownership of family pets is not easy for the court, nor necessarily fair to the disputants. Often, as is the case here, neither of the people in this dog’s life was really concerned about legal ownership until things went wrong. When families break apart, the family dog will usually be awarded to the person with the best case for legal ownership,” Slone wrote.

“While the previous arrangement of having the dog split its time between the two households could have continued, had the parties co-operated, when ‘push comes to shove’ the ownership falls on one side or the other, and in this case it is (the man) who I find to be the legal owner of Lily.”