WEST MILFORD-Who does the pet live with in the case of a divorce? It's a serious question. Just listen to Ellen (not her real name) works in Vernon and is in the midst of a divorce. She made every effort to get custody of her dog. "In my divorce agreement I have custody of my dog. People laugh at me when I tell them about the dog custody agreement but you have to cover all bases and I love my dog very much. It was very important to me to get custody of the dog." Breaking up is hard to do, even for the family pet. When couples have been together for a while and split up, sometimes the most overlooked relationship is that of the family pet. Deciding what to do with a beloved dog or cat can be difficult. Arlene Albino, a matrimonial lawyer in Sparta, tells the story of a couple, years ago in Paterson, that was getting divorced. "Under the property settlement the dog remained the property of the wife. After the divorce settlement, the man made a request for visitation of the dog. The wife opposed visitation because she was afraid the dog was going to be abused. The judge ruled that the dog was property of the wife and her ex-husband did not get any time with the dog." "There have been other cases where negotiating agreements include visitation on the weekends or whenever suitable. As far as medical bills go, if a person feels that the animal needs medical attention on their time, they would just pay for it." Ken Petrie, a matrimonial attorney in Riverdale, says he has also seen pet custody battles. "Most courts acknowledge the personal attachment to the animal
" "Let's assume after working out an agreement with your ex that you feel your pet has been mistreated. Assuming you are able to prove the mistreatment and present the case to Family Court, I believe the court would act and take the pet away because of the mistreatment. This is because the court must preserve the marital assets, and if a pet is a marital asset and it is being damaged by mistreatment, the court might say the value of this property is being damaged and award custody to the other party." Unfortunately, not everyone can work out custody and visitation agreements. Eric Lehrer, who adopted a dog from a divorcing couple explains, "I answered an ad in the newspaper that said, "free golden retriever to a good home." My wife and I adopted him. We felt really good about what we did because we love Yukon. He is such a sweet dog and he is very lucky - so are we. All of our lives changed for the better. We are absolutely crazy about him." Jean Bremy, president of the West Milford Animal Shelter Society, told The West Milfrod Messenger, "We definitely do see dogs of breakups coming in and we also pick up several animals off the streets, so we don't actually know how many are from couples breaking up. The financial burden of caring for a pet can be too much. Sometimes one partner will come in and drop the animal off and then a few days later, the other partner will come in looking for the pet." Bremy said, "I have even heard of custody fights over pets but we haven't seen any here, fortunately. When an animal is dropped off because of a breakup it is sometimes very sad, particularly if there is a child/animal relationship. They grow very close to one another. The child is usually separated from one parent and then to lose their pet can be very difficult. Most parents don't realize that the family pet can actually help the child through the parents' breakup." Couples who are splitting up and want to drop off a dog at the West Milford Animal Shelter Society can rest assured, because all adoptable dogs are kept for as long as it takes to find a suitable home. Bremy explained, "We've had pets for up to a year waiting to find a suitable home. Euthanasia is not an option here if the dog is adoptable." And the West Milford Animal Shelter doesn't just have dogs. They carry a variety of animals including cats, rabbits, and sometimes even mice, depending on the animals people drop off. The West Milford Animal Shelter can be reached at 973-728-2859 and its hours of operation are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m n 3 p.m. The shelter is also open Wednesday evenings from 7:30 n 9 p.m.