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B.C. man wins months-long dog custody battle after sharing agreement with ex breaks down

Animal lawyer Rebeka Breder says pet custody terms should be put in writing.

Harlen is a vizsla, an active breed known for their fierce loyalty. (Ian Birnie)

A man in Pemberton, B.C., has gotten his dog back after a months-long battle with his ex-girlfriend that started with shared custody and escalated to her making a unilateral decision to keep the pet to herself in Vancouver.

The B.C. Civil Resolution Tribunal, which deals with small claims disputes, recently decided the man is the dog's rightful owner even though he and his ex both argued they were the dog's primary caregiver.

Most provinces in Canada define dogs and other pets as property — regardless of who thinks they provide better care or are more attached to the animal.

"The law is clear that pets should not be treated in law as family members but rather as personal property," wrote tribunal member Shelley Lopez.

"Although it may seem harsh, disputes about what happens to pets after breakups are about ownership, rather than 'custody.'"

The man's lawyer, Rebeka Breder, says pet custody cases are becoming increasingly common.

"I think it's because people are having less kids," Breder said. "They treat their pets like kids, as they should."

Breder says there have been cases in B.C. that do take animal welfare into account. However, most still don't, and she says that highlights the need to have written agreements in case puppy parents split up.

Relationship breakdown

According to the decision, Ian Birnie and Savannah Austin had been living together for about 18 months when they jointly purchased the puppy, a vizsla named Harlen, in November 2016.

They split up six months later.

At first, the couple shared custody of the dog, the decision says. For 18 months following the breakup, the pair split time with Harlen and shared expenses like vet bills and other dog care.

Austin and Birnie each told the tribunal that they had been Harlen's primary caregiver, and both argued the dog would be better off in their care.

Both of Harlen's owners argued before the B.C. Civil Resolution Tribunal that they were the dog's primary caregivers. (Ian Birnie)

However, Birnie provided proof in the form of text messages from September 2018 that showed he and Austin agreed she would let him have Harlen to himself in exchange for a payment of $1,950, which they agreed he would pay when his work season ended.

According to the decision, their "amicable relationship" began to fall apart when Austin entered her ex-boyfriend's home without his permission later that month to retrieve some of her belongings.

In October, the pair agreed that Austin could keep Harlen until that spring, when she would get a new puppy — as long as Birnie could have Harlen over the holidays.

Birnie dropped off the dog with Austin in November. A week later, Austin told him she was going to keep Harlen permanently and would not discuss it further, the decision says.

After sending Austin multiple messages trying to locate Harlen, Birnie pursued the matter with the help of a lawyer. The tribunal ordered Austin to return the dog to Birnie, and for Birnie to pay her the $1,950 less the tribunal fees of $75.

CBC News reached out to Austin for comment, but she didn't respond.

Originally published by Maryse Zeidler · CBC News

November 16 2019

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