All of this brings me to Fido who was adopted by the girlfriend. She said she signed the doggie adoption papers before she moved in with her boyfriend, and the papers were in her name only. The relationship was stormy, and she was away a lot. Indeed, she was out of town for weeks at a time. When they were together, she left the dog with him. When they split apart, sometimes Fido still went to him, but there were other friends for her to rely on too. He loved the dog; purchased dog food; paid to take it to the vet, and generally cared for it, perhaps rather more than she did.
She had asked him to look after Fido once more, after their break-up. Fido was not returned, and so she had filed a case against her ex in Some County Court to get Fido back. I asked the couple how they thought the judge would decide. They looked glum: “we know Fido is just property.”
I was co-mediating this with another lawyer, and neither of us told them they were wrong. We were channeling property 101 thoughts: she had the dog first; neither party questioned that the adoption was in her name, and there was no hint from either of them that Fido had ever been abandoned by the girlfriend: she had always made sure he was taken care of.
We tried all the usual mediator’s pet tricks. We talked about week-on week-off dog walking time, first rights of refusal to care for Fido when she was away, and even suggested they both rescue a new dog from the pound and flip a coin for who took which dog. Mediation failed. Bottom line, they both wanted Fido badly.
At the back of my mind, I was thinking this is her dog, even if her boyfriend did spend more time with it and take more financial responsibility for it. If I had been asked to predict how it would go, I would have said Fido goes to the girlfriend.
Funny things happen when people go into courtrooms. They say new things that just did not get said in mediation, and judges sometimes explain how they like to rule. This judge was a “best interests of the dog” judge. He cared about who paid for things, and who had spent time with Fido. The boyfriend talked about how long they were a couple before they moved in with each other, almost making it seem like the dog adoption was their joint decision, and she did not contradict him on that point.
The boyfriend got to keep the dog, and I was relieved not to have offered any prediction about how the case would go during the mediation. The negotiations that surround court cases are always done in the shadow of the law, but for future reference, I made a note to self about not predicting outcomes too quickly. I was left wondering whether Fido’s judge would have listened to psychological testimony about the parrot’s deepest feelings.