Kona and Mr. Bear: The Story of a Nasty Divorce and Pet Visiting Rights in Washington State

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Erik Lacitis / The Seattle Times

Now we have the story of two dogs, Kona and Mr. Bear, and the bitter custody fight in Clark County between the divorced couple who had them in their home.

Many words were exchanged. There were 551 pages of documents sent all the way to the state appeals court.

Finally, on October 4, the court ruled that Mariah Thomas, from La Center in southwest Washington, was out of luck. The court overturned a Superior Court ruling granting him visitation rights with the two “babies,” as the court noted that both parties were calling the dogs.

“It’s devastating. They are like your children,” she said.

Conclusion of the three judges: in this state, pets are property and you are not allowed to visit the property.

Be careful, you couples who share that dog or cat when life is all about hugs and cute texts.

What happens when the hugs end and the lyrics turn vitriolic, and you decide to go our separate ways?

It can get unpleasant at this age when 71% of millennial pet owners (those between the ages of 25 and 40) consider their pet to be their “starting child,” according to a January 2020 Harris poll conducted for TD Ameritrade, the online broker.

As Elizabeth Lindsey, an Atlanta attorney and president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, explains in an email, “So plan ahead what the ownership will be, what the period of ‘detention’ will be … can be contracted out in a prenuptial agreement. “

Otherwise, maybe you’ll think about life without your Kona and Mr. Bear.

Due to the pandemic, says Lindsey, she expects pet litigation to increase, with a combination of cats and dogs becoming “great companions” in this time of isolation, but also marriages that will increase. go wrong.

Maybe that’s because 24/7 with a dog doesn’t annoy you as much as 24/7 with a spouse.

Dog fries and biscuits

Kona and Mr Bear had been living with Thomas’ ex-husband Doug Niemi of Washougal since she moved in 2018 after 27 years of marriage.

“These dogs were my emotional support animals, my companions,” says Thomas. “These dogs have a right to see me. We have to change the laws. They’re not a car, a spoon or a couch. But in the eyes of the law, that’s what they are. She treats them like. inanimate objects. “

One recent evening, she said all of this as she talks on her cell phone on one of her visits with the dogs – visits that should be ending soon. As she rides the back roads of the Washougal area, the two dogs do what they love to do in the car. Poke your head out the window.

Until the appeal court’s overturn goes to the Superior Court, her former husband respects the original divorce decree.

In addition to dividing finances, the Superior Court granted Thomas visits with the dogs for three hours on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, starting at 5:45 p.m.

How cold have things gotten between the couple?

They never speak to each other during pick-ups and drop-offs. Thomas texts Niemi to tell her that she has arrived and he lets the dogs out into the yard. And vice versa.

That evening, she went straight from her job as a nursing case manager at a Vancouver hospital to Washougal so she wouldn’t miss a minute of the three hours.

“I take them to Burgerville, I have fries and dog biscuits (distributed by the burger restaurant). They are very excited. We go to Starbucks, they have a Puppacino. They love whipped cream,” Thomas says.

Thomas estimates that she spent $ 7,000 or more on attorney fees on the appeal, and Niemi’s attorney said the appeal costs for her client “were substantial.” Niemi, whose LinkedIn profile lists him as a fleet maintenance professional, declined to be interviewed.

In the appeal, the court acknowledged that the couple “had regularly texted each other about the dogs’ sleep schedules, grooming, behavior training, exercise and social outings.”

But, the court said, the dogs could not be considered under child custody laws.

“On the contrary, our courts have historically and consistently characterized animals, even pets, as personal property,” the court said.

And, he says, the dogs were Niemi’s property and in the event of a divorce, state law “does not contain any provision regarding pet visits.”

The marriage produced two adult children, the human race.

The dogs had essentially become their new children.

Kona, a labradoodle (mix of labrador retriever and poodle) and Mr. Bear, a goldendoodle (mix of golden retriever and poodle) came into the couple’s lives as puppies about two years before Thomas moved out.

As the couple’s marriage broke down, Thomas left the family home for a motorhome about an hour away. She has now bought a house.

After the separation, in an informal arrangement, the dogs continued to live with Niemi, and Thomas visited them several times a week and sometimes even took them to his RV park.

In the divorce proceedings, Thomas sought a court order specifying that she could visit the dogs.

“I need to see them; they need to see me. Mr. Niemi agrees that I am emotionally attached to them. I don’t really believe he will let me see them without a court order,” he said. she declared.

During the procedure, Niemi said he was ready to let his ex-wife see the dogs. “It just has to be on a little more limited basis.”

But then came the Superior Court decision specifically mandating visitation on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Niemi appealed.

In an email, his lawyer, James Marston, of Camas, said: “Mr Niemi naturally felt he needed to tackle this problem head on.”

Marston said the visits, “52 weeks a year, to his property by an ex-wife with whom he doesn’t particularly get along” had been “oppressive from the start.”

Now, says the lawyer, “More than a year and a half after the divorce, Mr. Niemi is finally free to take a vacation and generally plan his evenings three days a week as he sees fit rather than as dictated by an order. of the visiting court. of the dogs attributed to him in the divorce decree. “

Animals in Courts

Marston says that by doing research, it is quite certain that this is the first time that a pet custody case has reached this level in state courts.

This was a big enough case to attract the attention of the California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund, which filed a friend of the court case with the Washington Court of Appeals.

The brief argued that pets are “sentient beings who are able to form strong two-way emotional bonds that a large majority of Americans describe as family.”

The brief even quoted the late Stephen Hawking that “non-human animals” have the “neurological substrates that generate consciousness.”

He noted that three states have recognized how important pets have become to us. Alaska, Illinois, and California have passed laws allowing judges to order joint ownership of pets.

And in Spain, a “pioneering” court ruling issued on October 7 by a Madrid judge granted joint custody to a Panda couple, a border collie they shared while living together for 20 months, has reported RTVE, the country’s public radio and television service. Among the evidence at trial were photos in which “the three are considered family, exactly as if it were a family photo with children,” a lawyer from a specialist law firm said. in animal law.

Thomas’ attorney is Adam Karp, of Bellingham, who specializes in animal law. It rose to prominence with cases like the $ 100,000 settlement in 2016 for a dog owner whose Chucky the spaniel was shot by a neighbor in the Tri-Cities.

Karp’s memoir included a reference to reporting on how Seattle has it and how “it’s increasingly common for couples to choose not to have children at all, instead of building their families around companions. non-human ”.

Karp says his client decides to take the case to the state Supreme Court.

Marston says that now an informal arrangement of visiting pets in this case is very unlikely.

“Mr. Niemi found all forms of communication with his ex-wife after the divorce to be aggravated,” he says.

For now, Thomas says she waits for the inevitable while she, Kona, and Mr. Bear drive.

“We talk, we listen to music,” explains Thomas.

Every time she drops them off after a visit, “I wonder if that’s it. I’ll never see them again.”

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