CRITTER CUS­TODY BAT­TLES

Own­ers and ex­perts share what hap­pens to pets when cou­ples break up

Global Times – Metro Beijing - - FRONT PAGE - By Yin Lu

Sit­ting in her apart­ment in Berlin with her cat Müesli purring next to her, Swiss ex­pat Sarah Neuen­schwan­der some­times thinks about her other cat, Meow, that

she left be­hind in Beijing.

When Neuen­schwan­der, 44, a pro­fes­sional or­ga­nizer and her ex­pat ex-hus­band de­cided to sep­a­rate last sum­mer, she wanted to keep both cats.

But due to mul­ti­ple fac­tors, in­clud­ing re­lo­ca­tion ar­range­ments and each cat’s per­son­al­ity, she ended up with only one. “An an­i­mal is for life,” she said. Breakups and di­vorces can be ugly, and when pets are in­volved, it makes the sit­u­a­tion much harder.

Some­times they both want to keep the pets, and one has to con­vince the other to give up cus­tody. At other times, pets are viewed as re­minders of the failed re­la­tion­ship and aban­doned.

Metropoli­tan talked to pet own­ers and an­i­mal ex­perts about what hap­pens to a cou­ple’s pet when they break up, some of the de­cid­ing fac­tors when ne­go­ti­at­ing who gets the pet, other con­se­quences and how one main­tains both a pet and a healthy ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship.

Who gets the cat?

“I wanted to keep both cats be­cause of my com­mit­ment to take care of them un­til the end of their lives,” Neuen­schwan­der said. “I didn’t want to split them up.”

She was the one who found the cats and brought them into the fam­ily, and as she was at home more of­ten, she spent the most time with them.

One of the rea­sons she had to leave Meow be­hind is that only one pet is al­lowed to ac­com­pany each pass­port holder on a flight, and she didn’t want to put the other cat through the or­deal of trav­el­ing in cargo.

Although her ex-hus­band would have pre­ferred to keep Müesli, the more lov­ing of the two fe­lines, Neuen­schwan­der won cus­tody.

“We both bonded a lot with both cats,” she said. “Müesli helped me a lot emo­tion­ally dur­ing some very dif­fi­cult times. Meow is su­per quirky, like the quirky kid you have in the fam­ily.”

It was a hard de­ci­sion, but the ar­range­ment turned out well. Now that Müesli the dom­i­nant cat is gone, Meow has started to show her own per­son­al­ity and has be­come very lov­ing now that she is the only cat in the house. Neuen­schwan­der does not worry about her as much, but she still misses hav­ing both an­i­mals.

“Now Meow is a hu­tong cat, as my ex moved into the hu­tong,” she said. “He told me that she is very happy.”

Since the for­mer cou­ple did not have any chil­dren to­gether, they treated their pets like some par­ents treat their chil­dren. They paid a lot of money to take the cats with them when they re­lo­cated from Nor­way to China in 2015. Neuen­schwan­der also got in­volved with grass­roots an­i­mal res­cue or­ga­ni­za­tions while liv­ing in Beijing.

“We’ve been di­vorced for a month now, and I re­al­ize he did me a favor. I’ve learned and grown a ton. Plus, I’m so grate­ful to have been able to live in Beijing be­cause of this re­la­tion­ship.”

Af­ter the di­vorce, their com­mu­ni­ca­tion is down to a min­i­mum, but now and then, he sends a photo or two of Meow. “I am sure he misses Müesli, and I miss Meow very much,” Neuen­schwan­der said.

Talk­ing about cus­tody

Among the four cats they had, two liked Ce­sare Song bet­ter. The other two pre­ferred his ex-girl­friend. But in­stead of caus­ing a scene or di­vid­ing the cats up ac­cord­ing to which owner they fa­vored, the two calmly dis­cussed their op­tions dur­ing their breakup.

“Talk­ing about cus­tody of the cats took us a while,” said Song, 30 a re­search fel­low in Xi’an, Shaanxi Prov­ince. "Both of us want the best for the cats, so we did our anal­y­sis and made the de­ci­sion."

Song and his ex got four cats, Juan, Luna, Neo and Latte, to­gether when they were both study­ing in Italy. They re­turned to Song’s home­town in Xi'an with the four cats af­ter grad­u­a­tion.

Song and his ex did not want mar­riage or chil­dren, but af­ter re­turn­ing to China, they felt more pres­sure from their rel­a­tives and friends. In the end, she re­turned to her home­town in Jiangsu Prov­ince.

Song got all four cats be­cause his ex's par­ents have two dogs, and he lives in a three-bed­room apart­ment, which pro­vides am­ple space for the cats.

Hav­ing gone through some tough times where they would have called it quits had it not been for the cats, Song said the an­i­mals will be like a for­ever bond be­twen them.

“Although we’re no longer to­gether, the cats still con­nect us, as our bond," he said. “It’s just like when par­ents di­vorce."

Mak­ing rea­son­able ar­range­ments

Rita Sun, 37, and her ex-hus­band sep­a­rated in 2010, and they didn't make clear ar­range­ments about their eight cats and two dogs. Who­ever was more avail­able would take care of them, and that person

was mostly her ex.

In 2013, one of the cats got thin­ner. Sun thought it was mostly be­cause the cat missed her and she de­cided to take them over.

“I am com­mit­ted [to an­i­mal wel­fare]. He sup­ported me out of love, and he likes pets too. He’s just not ca­pa­ble of keep­ing so many be­cause his job is more time­con­sum­ing,” said Sun, who had res­cued the an­i­mals from the street.

Now that the cou­ple has been di­vorced for about a year, their pet sit­u­a­tion is sim­pler. He keeps one dog and a cat who has trou­ble get­ting along with the other cats. She keeps the rest. Both get to visit, and if one goes on a busi­ness trip, the other will take things over.

Although her own story was sim­ple and without any dis­putes, in her friends’ circle, she hears sto­ries where peo­ple might get into phys­i­cal fights and le­gal dis­putes, or snatch their co-owned pets and hide them from their for­mer lovers dur­ing a breakup.

Sun said that since most of her friends are more ma­ture, it is more of­ten to see cases of peo­ple fight­ing over pet cus­tody than aban­don­ing co-owned pets due to breakups.

“Most peo­ple are very rea­son­able and eco­nom­i­cally able to keep pets. But for young cou­ples, many of whom are col­lege sweet­hearts who de­cided to keep pets out of im­pulse, they might aban­don their pets af­ter breakups,” she said. “I would ad­vise young cou­ples who are barely ca­pa­ble of tak­ing care of them­selves at the mo­ment not to take pets.”

Bal­anc­ing ro­mance and pet-own­er­ship

Ac­cord­ing to Sun, nowa­days many peo­ple would pri­or­i­tize their re­la­tion­ship with their pet over their ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship, es­pe­cially be­fore mar­riage.

“It’s partly be­cause women are more in­de­pen­dent now,” she said.

How­ever, in the younger de­mo­graphic, Song said that some peo­ple get their part­ners or peo­ple they are court­ing a pet as a gift. Also, some cou­ples get pets to­gether be­cause they want some­thing as a sym­bol or guar­an­tee of their love.

Song pointed out that peo­ple’s re­la­tion­ship with their pet should be in­de­pen­dent of their ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship with their sig­nif­i­cant other.

When de­cid­ing whether or not they should get pets to­gether, Song said it is im­por­tant that the cou­ple both like pets, in­stead of just want­ing to be nice to their part­ner.

“Try not to as­so­ciate the an­i­mal with your feel­ings for the person,” said Mary Peng, the CEO and founder of In­ter­na­tional Cen­ter for Vet­eri­nary Ser­vices in Beijing.

Peng told Metropoli­tan that bal­anc­ing one’s re­la­tion­ship with one’s pet and that of your part­ner is chal­leng­ing for modern cou­ples, re­gard­less of their age, mar­i­tal sta­tus, or sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion. They need to bal­ance both their ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship and their re­la­tion­ship with their pets.

Although the lead­ing causes of pet aban­don­ment are still preg­nan­cies, re­lo­ca­tions and col­lege stu­dents go­ing away dur­ing va­ca­tions or af­ter grad­u­a­tion, pets be­ing aban­doned af­ter breakups are not rare, she said.

It is com­mon for a cou­ple to get a pet to see what it is like to have chil­dren. How­ever, if it does not al­ways work out, which could pos­si­bly lead to them aban­don­ing the an­i­mal af­ter their breakup, Peng ex­plained.

She ad­vises cou­ples to talk about cus­tody be­fore­hand. “You sit down with your part­ner and say, ‘Hey, who gets the dog if we di­vorce?’” Peng said. “Peo­ple don’t talk about it when they are happy, but they need to.”

Neuen­schwan­der also ad­vises that cou­ples talk about it, or in­clude the is­sue in their prenup­tial agree­ment, should they have one.

“Do what’s best for the pets. If they’re more bonded with one person, let them stay with that part­ner, or the one with more time and ded­i­ca­tion, or more space,” she said.

“Keep in mind that an an­i­mal is a sen­tient be­ing, not an ob­ject. Their well-be­ing, just like that of hu­man chil­dren, comes first.”

Photo: IC

Breakups and di­vorces are tough, and when there are co-owned pets in­volved, it makes things even more com­pli­cated.

Photo: IC

Ex­perts ad­vise cou­ples to talk in ad­vance about who gets their pet in case they sep­a­rate and to put their pet’s interest first.

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