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In Argentina, A Pet Custody Battle Leads To "Multi-Species Family" Legal Status

A Buenos Aires divorce court has set a legal precedent for animal rights by resolving a custody battle with a visiting routine for the dogs of a divorced couple. The ruling is helping fill a vacuum around the legal protection of animals and pets.

In Argentina, A Pet Custody Battle Leads To "Multi-Species Family" Legal Status

When a couple divorces, what happens to their pets?

Mara Resio

BUENOS AIRES — When divorces loom, so does the question of who gets the kids.

But in today's era of diverse forms and composition of families, that question is expanding to include those other much-loved family members — pets. For some couples, their pets are their de facto children. So much so that one couple in Argentina went to court to settle custody of their two dogs.

In doing so, they introduced a new term to Argentine family law: "the multi-species family."

Taking the pet's wishes into account

That is the case of Amorina Bascoy (47) and Emmanuel Medina (42), a former couple from Argentina whose divorce settlement included a leisure and exercise regime for "their children," Kiara (9) and Popeye (6), two black dogs they rescued while married. The four constitute a "multi-species" family, a new term in the realm of family law in Argentina.

Earlier in October, a court in San Isidro, Buenos Aires, approved the couple's earlier agreement that Amorina would keep Popeye and Emmanuel would have custody of Kiara. The pact, says Amorina, had taken the dogs' wishes into account, and "each of them chose one of us to live with."

Pets must be seen like people with feelings, not things

"We didn't have children, so our dogs are our babies. It's a pure and noble love," says Emmanuel, stroking Kiara on a day the ex-couple were walking the dogs together in La Lucila, a seaside district. The two did not want their divorce to affect the dogs, and the four now share "walking" time at least once a week.

Amorina says the most important thing is for the dogs to be happy when the four are together. "We don't have a problem seeing each other in spite of getting divorced. We forget about ourselves because just spending time with them makes us smile," she says.

There is a legal vacuum in Argentina around the multi-species family.

Sarandy Westfall

Helping other little animals

The harmony has its limits. "There's no problem" with Emmanuel getting a girlfriend, says Amorina, "unless the new partner doesn't like the doggies." The former couple, who were married 15 years, may also disagree on what to feed the dogs. Amorina favors a "balanced" diet, and Emmanuel slyly buys them meat pies on occasions. The weekly walks are a coordinated affair that relies on "good faith" and "total flexibility" on both sides, says Emmanuel.

Popeye and Kiara do miss each other, Amorina admits. Their "parents" are not indifferent to their moods. Amorina says, "I was depressed, and being with them helped me get better. I just die when they look at me this way," pointing at the dogs beside her. Emmanuel is seated nearby, and says, "They come looking for you when they want to sleep. They stare at you, so you too have to go to bed with them."

The former couple agree that pets must be seen like people with feelings, not things. "If a couple is no longer together, it's a separation between them, and has nothing to do with the animals. It's cruel overlooking the animal just because they can't speak."

They add, a little emotively, "the years will pass and we won't be alive, but Popeye and Kiara will become immortal in that decision. And they'll be helping other little animals."

Adapting the law for pets

There is a legal vacuum in Argentina around the multi-species family. For that reason, lawyer Iván Knobel thought of including an agreement on the pets with the divorce request. He says, "This is the first time Argentinian justice includes in a divorce a visiting routine for the pets. It will create awareness so the Civil and Commercial Code can be changed as was done in Spain, and the welfare of household pets is taken into account when there is a separation."

Current norms in the country still cite animals as "movable property that can move independently or be moved by an outside force." The judicial system has already recognized households including a caregiver and household pets (considered non-human persons) as families.

The non-human animals that live with us are our family

For Diana Sica, the judge who ruled for Popeye and Kiara, "animals and especially domestic animals, are sentient beings that feel, miss, rejoice, suffer and acquire habits." Thus, she said, "there can be no doubt that the change produced by the couple's separation will affect them as well. That means the owners will be in the best position to care for their interests."

The multi-species family was first mentioned in the case of the killing of a dog, Tita, in March 2019 in Chubut in south Argentina. The court considered its two owners, their children, another dog and a cat to have been Tita's family. The killer was a police sergeant Elías Saavedra, who was found guilty of abuse of authority and of violating a law to protect animals.

The judge in that case said that the "non-human animals that live with us are our family. We give them a name, our own surname when we take them to the vet, give them an address (our home), take care of their health, feed and educate them, and ensure they have leisure time."

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