Lesbian Custody Battle Over Hound Leads to Lawsuit

Breaking up is often messy business. It’s hard enough navigating how to hang out with mutual friends and de-tangling on Facebook, but add children or companion animals to the mix and you enter a whole new world of potential pain and petty vindictiveness. Enter the story of little Lily Finkel-Quintas-Garcia.

Lily in the Middle, photo via NY Daily News

Once upon a time two Brooklynites, Rebecca Finkel, 34, and Michelle Quintas, 42, adopted a Labrador-Shepherd mutt together from a friend in the Bronx. After seven years of co-habitating with the hound (you know where this is going…), the two broke up in 2004, at which point Quintas moved with Lily to Ohio. The exes originally came to an amicable custody agreement where both women traded time with the beloved family member, regularly meeting  between Ohio and Brooklyn to share 8-year-old Lily.

Alas, no more! Reportedly Lily was given back to the mutual friend they adopted her from by Quintas, and Finkle is now being denied visitation or custody after reaching out to Garcia for a visit with Lily and recieving this text in return:

“I have no interest in sharing Lily in the way you shared with Michelle. I do appreciate what you’ve done for her over the years. Please do not contact me again.”

None too happy, Finkle filed suit with the Brooklyn Supreme Court this week. But there’s no law recognizing pet custody, leaving couples on their own to work out those types of agreements. Because animals are considered pieces of property under the law, technically ownership is given to the person who purchased the pet as you would any other piece of property.  Doreen Houseman’s experienced this first-hand in the battle over her pug:

“The judge said he did not want to know about the emotional attachment,” explained Houseman’s attorney, Gina Calogero. “He didn’t want to consider it, because to him, the dog was no different from a chair or a couch. They’re not people. They’re not children.”

Doreen Houseman lost rights to Dexter the pug

In Houseman’s case, the judge ruled because she was not the person to purchase Dexter, she had no rights to keep him.

Clearly many people place a much more significant emotional value on a pet than a kitchen table, so court rulings aren’t always so cut and dry.  Finkle believes that Lily is being used as a bargaining chip in the aftermath of her breakup with Quintas, and the law may be at a point where that’s recognized as something significant. Custody battles over pets are on the rise and same-sex marriages and domestic partnerships are listed among the reasons for this increase. In part, this is because domestic abuse legislation now recognizes that pets are sometimes used to threaten or control domestic violence victims. There is a changing tide in how courts perceive of pets, considering their welfare as you might children rather than simply as property like a couch. How things bode for Lily will highly depend on the judge presiding over the case. One of the innumerable ways in which gay couples experience second-class-citizen treatment is in breakups; if a couple isn’t legally married, they aren’t provided with the support that straight couples are when they divorce. But there’s a chance that may be changing — at least for people like Lily’s owners, and Lily herself.

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Jamie lives in Boston and is currently a PhD student in Global Governance and Human Security at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She is a freelance writer and also a team associate for the Boston chapter of Hollaback!.

Jamie has written 79 articles for us.

17 Comments

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    It’s a delicate issue. When you move to cahnge their status as “property”, you run the risk of surrendering certain rights protecting personal property and the legal resources protecting property..While I can’t discuss specifics of the cases, we have been called in to consult on 2 divorce cases involving the family pets..In both cases (the same judge) was very intersted in serving the “best interests of the animals involved”..So there is some indication of change

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      Interesting. Having the legal resources protecting property is useful for the person who can prove they purchased the animal, but under this legal framework the party who didn’t purchase the animal doesn’t have much in terms of rights/resources to work with as I understand the issue, no?

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        This is true..But when we get into the argument of “pets are family not property” the law does not recognize the emotional aspect of an argument..If someone damages your property, you have legal resources to either gain restitution as well as in some cases the right to press charges in regard to said damages etc..When we begin to argue that pets should have rights or that they carry the same importance as say, kids in a break-up, you get into dicey territory..As in the cases I was involved with, a “neutral third party” was brought in to assess the interests of the animal..I’m just not sure that’s an avenue we really want to go down. Sadly, in this case you’ve reported on..It sounds like there is a deliberate attempt to punish the ex..Why else would the dog have been returned to the original person who adopted the dog out rather than to the ex..For now, it seems judges are interpreting the “laws” as they see fit..In The cases I spoke of, it was the judge who brought us in to consult, and not either plaintiff.

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          hmm, that’s interesting, Digger. I’ve done a small amount of family law work and the law works quite differently here… there being no ‘best interests’ test for animals in the law, it’s hard to imagine a judge reading one in.

          the compensation stuff is a good point but if memory serves a lot of pet death compensation cases have been awarded damages in tort not equity. meaning restitution or other equitable remedies are available and the damages are calculated on the basis of the financial loss you have suffered. problematic when the value of domestic pets is financial rather than emotional.

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            I have to say though I am averse to making animals the subjects of custody (or care as it’s called here) disputes, if only because the family law system is stretched enough as it is without letting people squabble about the family dog before a Court.

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            I have no legal knowledge..Dogs are my thing..We were called in when both parties were at an impass..They agreed to his involving us and he wanted our input..It was the most unpleasant experience..But we followed his instructions and gave our assessment..I don’t even know how he ruled..But yes..in the event of death or injury..Damages are based on value..It seems cold..But it’s better recourse than appointing a “law guardian” as some here have suggested..it all makes me twitchy..But my dogs are registered in my name..I’m never going to take a chance of losing them

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    Who purchased the animal doesn’t necessarily work, my cat was never purchased. I adopted her after she was abandoned in a field and took to living under my parent’s porch.

    Also, I would raise hell if I broke up with someone (or they broke up with me) and they tried to take my cat. Course I would also provide my cat in a will and already have a detailed plan for who gets her if something happens to me.

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    Wow. Scary. I’ve always been very clear about whose animal is whose when entering into any relationship, no matter how long/cohabitative. It’s only responsible. Also with contingency “if I die, X animal goes to X” plans in place. So I don’t end up responsible for an animal I don’t want (I was attached to my last partner’s husky. I was. But no way I would live with that hair and the holes in its training for the rest of its life if my partner had passed. I made that clear). I have proof of ownership for my animals and clear instructions to my family/partner on what to do with them if I die. I wouldn’t dream of saddling my loved ones with trying to figure out what to do with them.

    I’ve also got clear situational/cost limits on health emergencies, in case I can’t be contacted. It would break my heart if someone delayed a necessitated euthanizing of one of my animals because I couldn’t be reached to okay it. If it can be tranq’d enough not to suffer in reasonable time for me to get there to say goodbye, of course I want to do that. But if it’s writhing in agony, don’t make it wait for me. It saddens and shocks me when people don’t have these sorts of basic plans in place.

    Love your animals enough to have plans and limits in place BEFORE you get into a tricky situation.

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    Not that this makes a bit of difference in the big picture but I’m confused about the timeline of this.

    The article states that the couple broke up in 2004 and lived together with the dog for seven years, yet the dog is now 8 years old? I wondered why the dog would be used for a bargaining chip since they broke up way back in ’04.

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