MADISON, WIS. — Talk about treating Fido like one of the family: Wisconsin legislators have introduced a bill that outlines how divorcing couples and the courts should handle custody battles over pets.
The measure would let couples specify, among other things, visitation rights and the right to move animals out of state. If the feuding spouses can't agree on what to do with the pet, the solution is simple: A judge can either pick a spouse -- or ship it off to a local Humane Society facility or similar shelter.
Whoever gets there first owns the dog, cat or even goldfish. If they wait too long, someone else could adopt their beloved animal or, depending on the shelter's policies, it could be euthanized.
"Traditionally, the courts treat pets like pieces of property," said Republican state Sen. Carol Roessler, coauthor of the bill. "People might have an emotional tie to a family antique. But a dog is not a desk."
The bill, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, has tongues wagging at the state Capitol here. On the one hand, families are increasingly treating their furry friends as pampered children: Americans are expected to lavish $40.8 billion on their pets this year, with only $9.8 billion of that spent on veterinarian care, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Assn.
But the bill's lead author, state Rep. Sheryl Albers -- a Republican known for spearheading unusual legislation, including bills to create a state ballad, to ensure that gold bullion be exempt from sales tax, and to let residents drive golf carts on city roads -- says she is pushing the law because of her now- husband's own messy divorce in 2003.
Albers said her husband and his ex-wife bitterly fought over who should care for the family's Labrador, Sammi. The kids wanted to keep Sammi, who was aging and incontinent. Neither parent, however, was clamoring to house the dog full time, Albers said.
According to Albers and Dane County Circuit Court documents, a judge ordered that as the three children split their time between Mom and Dad, so too should Sammi.
"The dog did not travel well. It shed. It would get sick in the car," said Albers, an attorney. "It was not easy dealing with that dog."
Over time, Albers commiserated with friends about the situation, and heard tales of similar custody issues.
When Sammi the dog died in February at age 17, Albers said, "it was a relief."
The experience convinced her that the law needed to change.
States traditionally consider animals property, so whichever spouse can establish ownership gets custody.
If ownership cannot be established, judges often try to figure out which spouse is the better caretaker and give the animal to that person.
The bill, introduced this month, comes as interest is growing among the public and the legal community in animals' rights and humane treatment.
A decade ago, just a few law schools were teaching courses on pets' rights, farm practices affecting animals, and dog-bite statutes, said law professor Richard L. Cupp Jr., associate dean for research at Pepperdine University School of Law.
Now dozens of schools teach courses on animal law, and colleges have clinical programs and research centers devoted to the subject.
This fall, Georgetown University Law Center and the Humane Society of the United States will widen the school's animal-law curriculum.
"It's one of the most rapidly expanding areas of law in this country," Cupp said.
Pet-custody fights have helped drive this boom, legal experts say.
Feuds sometimes reach the intensity usually seen in child-custody disputes.
One of the most famous cases was the divorce of Stanley and Linda Perkins, wealthy San Diegans who made national news over their fight for a pointer-greyhound mix named Gigi.
After two years of vying to become Gigi's sole custodian, Linda Perkins won the ruling in 2000.
Among evidence shown to the court was a "Day in the Life of Gigi" video, featuring the dog sleeping under Linda Perkins' chair at work, cuddling at home and playing fetch at the beach.
"That's mild compared to what we've seen out here," said Madison divorce attorney Thomas R. Glowacki, who has been practicing here for more than 30 years.
There was the time a client of his, saddled with an ailing pooch, sought "doggy support" from her ex-husband. (She lost.)
Or the case of a bitter wife who won custody of her husband's dog -- and euthanized it when the divorce was finalized.
And then there was the case of the German shepherd with digestion problems.
Each Friday, the husband would pick up the dog for the weekend.
Each Sunday afternoon, right before returning the animal to his ex-wife, the man would feed the dog fatty sausages.
"It got messy," Glowacki said. "We had to specify in court that if he wanted to see the dog, he couldn't feed it that unless he kept the dog overnight."
Critics of the bill worry that it will force shelter staffers into the untenable role of modern King Solomon.
"Animal shelters already deal with the legal risks associated when someone decides to drop off 'my boyfriend's dog' or 'my girlfriend's dog' to get back at a person during a breakup," said Kim Intino, director of animal sheltering issues for the Humane Society.
"Their staffs are under enough strain without a court mandate telling them they have to take on even more of these kinds of cases," Intino said.