A dog named Honey was not a party to the case that was argued before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday, even though it was all about her.

Honey lived with a Bangor couple until they broke up, and both exes claimed that she belonged with them.

One partner had his name on all the adoption paperwork. The other said Honey was like a member of her family and wanted to at least negotiate a custody agreement.

What did Honey want? Well, she’s a dog, so no one asked.

If she were being abused or neglected, the state could step in to protect her, but in the eyes of the law, she’s a piece of property no different from a shared car or a living room set. At the District Court level, a judge looked past the emotional battle and determined that the member of the couple whose name appeared on the ownership documents was the dog’s owner.

And that’s where the state supreme court should land as well.

There’s no question that a pet can be part of a household. They have individual personalities and they bond with their owners. Pets appear to be happy to see you, and can seem sad when you go away.

But that’s not enough to make their emotional preferences anything that can be reliably considered in a court of law. Dogs are considered property in all 50 states, and only three states – Alaska, Illinois and California – have laws that address pet custody in a divorce. Gene Sullivan, who represents the woman who would like to get Honey back (at least part of the time), told the justices, “I’m trying to evolve part of the law.” That’s reason enough for the justices to say “no.”

The court system is one of the best ways ever devised to resolve disputes, especially when they involve money. We cannot demand that judges start considering the rights and opinions of animals, who, as far as we can tell, don’t know that we still exist when we are not in their sight. And how would a judge determine the dog’s wishes? Look deeply into her eyes? See if she wags her tail?

If dogs have legal rights in custody cases, what about other animals? Should wage-and-hour laws apply to dairy cows? Can deer sue for a shorter hunting season?

There are limits to what courts can do, and disputes between humans have created so much work for the state’s judges that we shouldn’t demand that they grapple with philosophical questions about the nature of consciousness. If the Legislature wants to pass a pet custody law, the judges can apply it. Until then, the existing laws of property will have to do.

Leonardo da Vinci, who died 500 years ago this month, wrote, “The time will come when men such as I will look on the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men.”

We’re not there yet. Dogs like Honey may have their day, but at least for now, not their day in court.

 

 

 


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