The dissolution of Susan and Paul Barthel's marriage has been working its way through the Will County divorce courts for two years.
That's 14 in dog years for Pepper, the couple's black Labrador now at the heart of an increasingly antagonistic legal dispute. Married in 2004, the couple got Pepper on a cold November day in 2009 from a downstate woman hoping to find homes for her dog's litter of pups, remembers Paul Barthel, who now lives in Carol Stream.
"She opened the gate and all these puppies came running toward us, and Pepper was the one who came running up to us," he says.
These days, Pepper is running up the legal bills. Susan Barthel has had Pepper since the couple's separation, except for a single day when Paul Barthel claims the dog ran to him while unattended in his estranged wife's yard. Her legal briefs claim Paul Barthel took Pepper from her house, and a judge issued an order of protection barring Paul Barthel from going back to the home where Pepper lives. Paul Barthel's legal requests for visitation with Pepper have been routinely dismissed. As her estranged husband takes his case to the media, Susan Barthel tells reporters that she loves Pepper, too, and wants to keep the dog. Her attorney, Heather Nosko, told Fox TV that her client is following the law, which recognizes pets as personal property. It's a story that may become more common.
"No judge is going to (assign visitation rights for a pet)," says Angela Peters, a veteran Arlington Heights lawyer and former chair of the Illinois State Bar Association's Animal Law Section. The law considers pets property, same as a lamp or a table. The court grants custody or visitation in cases involving children, but when it comes to dogs and other pets, the court grants ownership.
Instead of arguing, as lawyers do in matters of children, about what's "in the best interest" of the pet, the better approach centers on "the uniqueness of pets as property," Peters says. "There are more judges who are willing to listen."
Peters points to last week's prison sentence handed down in South Carolina for a man convicted of dragging a dog behind his speeding truck for more than two miles. The dog lived, received more than $16,000 in donations and was adopted. The driver received five years in prison on an ill treatment of animals charge and another five years on related charges.
Longtime animal law advocate Anna Morrison-Ricordati, another former chair of the state bar association's animal law section, sees a move in treating pets as more than property in some of her recent cases.
She represented a couple who received a $19,000 settlement in a Kane County case in which a large dog killed her clients' tiny Pomeranian during an animal clinic's holiday party.
She also represented a man who received a $75,000 settlement after his dog survived being shot by a police officer.
"We consider ourselves guardians instead of owners. We have bonds with animals that aren't like tables and chairs," Morrison-Ricordati says.
"The black letter of the law is still that nonhuman animals are considered property, and property doesn't have rights. But the concept of rights for nonhuman animals is picking up steam," says lawyer Amy Breyer, an animal rights pioneer who recently left her Chicago law practice to open the Animal History Museum in Pasadena, California.
In his book, "Citizen Canine," author David Grimm "explores how these social and legal revolutions are transforming society" in the ways the law regards animals. Attorney Steven Wise recently appeared on "The Colbert Report" to talk about his habeas corpus lawsuits filed in New York seeking to win civil rights and freedom for four caged chimpanzees that Wise says should have similar rights as their human cousins.
Des Plaines resident Aleksandra Nejman built her pet-centric mediation practice in Palatine after her own experience of having her former boyfriend take his dog, Frankie, when their relationship ended -- a story featured in a 2013 Newsweek article titled, "Divorce, Doggy Style."
"You can't compare it to a couch. It lives and breathes and feels pain," Nejman, chief visionary officer for Royale Litigation, says of her special bond with that dog. "Not everybody has kids. Love is love. I don't think anybody should judge what another person loves."
While she says that mediation among a group of burly bikers successfully resulted in a rabbit named Bunny ending up with a worthy owner, Nejman says mediation has not been possible in her work on behalf of Paul Barthel. Couples with dogs might be wise to craft a prepup agreement before their nuptials.
"In the last year, I've done 100 cases. Right now, I have six couples going through the same issues Paul has," Nejman says.
"These cases are going to continually come up. The courts are going to have to deal with it. The law reflects attitudes. When attitudes change, the law reflects that."
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