Divorce, Doggy Style

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Pet custody mediators train former partners not to fight in front of the puppies. Bobby Yip/Reuters

During his divorce, May hired family law attorney David Pisarra to deal with custody of his daughter, three dogs, two cats, and a parrot.

They did everything together. When Aleksandra Nejman cruised around Chicago in her convertible, Frankie rode shotgun. When she ate at a local Italian restaurant, Frankie went with her. And when she worked on her computer at home, Frankie sat beside her, gently touching her hand.

Then Nejman broke up with Frankie's owner, and Frankie, a 60-pound black and brown 7-year-old lab-Rottweiler mix with a perpetual smile, disappeared from her life. His absence felt "like a big hole in my heart," says Nejman, a 28-year-old attorney. Unable to work out an arrangement with her ex, Nejman contacted pet custody and care mediator Charles Regal.

Pet-custody battles may sound cloyingly New-Agey but they are on the rise, fueled by high divorce rates and an exploding pet industry. The number of U.S. households that own a pet has increased from 56 percent in 1988 to 68 percent in 2013, according to the American Pet Products Association National Pet Owners Survey. The amount spent on furry (or feathered) friends has also risen: from $17 billion in 1994 to $53.33 billion in 2012. At the same time the divorce rate has remained relatively high, from 40 percent to 50 percent according to most researchers. The last time the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) surveyed its members on the topic, a quarter said pet-custody cases had increased noticeably.

Which animals are fought over depends on where you live. In more rural areas, like where AAML president Maria Cognett practices, horses predominate - although she did have a contentious llama issue once. A client wanted half of his wife's llamas. He wasn't attached to the wooly beasts; he just wanted them as bargaining chips.

As people increasingly view their pets as members of the family, the issues of separation aren't that different from child custody, according to pet consultant Steven May (who, it is true, has a dog in this fight). During his divorce, May hired family law attorney David Pisarra to deal with, among other things, custody of his daughter, three dogs, two cats, and a parrot. Pisarra had handled such cases before and even co-parented a pet himself. May and Pisarra co-wrote What About Wally: Co-Parenting a Pet With Your Ex.

Adopting an animal with a partner is often a first step toward starting a family, says May. And even if that relationship sours, love for the pet usually remains. He adds that couples can even mend some of the hurt and loss they are feeling with a good pet co-parenting plan.

Regal has his own tips for splitting couples: Take care of yourself; don't fight in front of the animals; and find a mediator if communication is difficult. While many attorneys and mediators handle pet cases, Regal is one of the few in the nation who focuses solely on pet-custody mediation, a non-legal process that helps separating couples resolve pet issues. A decade ago he noticed how badly most pet-custody cases turned out in court - they were expensive, time-consuming, and seldom resolved to either owner's satisfaction. Courts tend to treat animals as property, he says, no different from a coffeepot or couch. Regal regards them as an equal party, referring to them by name and keeping a photo of them in front of him while conducting mediation sessions over the phone.

"When people call me, I don't ask about their situation," he says. "I ask about the dog or the cat: its name, its age, any special needs, how they think the animal is feeling."

He has helped a bunny or two but draws the line at snakes. They give him the willies. (One of the rabbits in question, Bunny, belonged to a biker gang.)

Regal treats the mediations as strategic brainstorming sessions, making suggestions and helping both parties iron out the details of co-parenting, tackling everything from visitation and vet bills to walking and feeding times. He charges $350 for the first hour and $200 for each additional hour, with cases taking an average of two to three hours.

Nejman, who was still pining for her Frankie, contacted Regal in September. She had been with her boyfriend since right after he adopted Frankie seven years ago, helping him through his hyper puppy stage and his recent health problems. The couple broke up in March, but she continued to see Frankie several times a week until late July, when she says her dog access was denied. Frankie's birthday isn't until February 25, but Nejman has already started working on his present, a photo collage. She contacted Regal hoping he could convince her ex to allow her to deliver the present. (Her ex did not respond to emails or phone calls from Newsweek.)

Regal concedes that his animal-centric style isn't for everyone. People must really, really love their pets to turn to him - like Regal does. The 64-year-old San Franciscan has a dog, and credits his late cat Sapphire with saving his life, having woken him one night when his blood sugar was dangerously low. He has been fortunate enough to not have experienced a partner break-up involving pets, but does recall an issue with a woman who was allergic to cats: "Guess who stayed and guess who left?" he says.

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