Judge orders shared custody of golden retriever under new B.C. law | CBC News

A golden retriever named Stella is now part of legal history in B.C. after an upper court decision based on new laws that recognize pets as family members, not just property.

The ruling is the first of its kind and stems from a claim filed in B.C. Supreme Court in New Westminster by a woman seeking to have exclusive care of the dog after she and her boyfriend broke up last year.

But in his reasons for judgment, Associate Judge Scott Nielsen ordered that custody of Stella be split evenly on a week on/week off basis.

“Both the claimant and the respondent have shown a deep concern about the well being of Stella, and I am satisfied that in the circumstances the custody of Stella should be shared on an interim without-prejudice basis,” said Nielsen.

The decision comes three months after amendments made to the Family Law Act clarify that pets or “companion animals” are members of the family. 

Victoria Schroff, a lawyer who specializes in animal rights, says having a B.C. Supreme Court decision based on the new legislation is an important milestone.

‘What’s so significant is the way the judge says … that animals are sentient beings, and we’re going to analyze this case in light of that,” said Schroff, who was not involved in the case. 

“Any time an upper court starts to acknowledge the fact that animals are part of the family — they are our furry family members — it doesn’t mean they’re not still property under the law, but it means that they have an elevated status above that of a toaster.”

Portrait of woman with dark hair and glasses.
Victoria Shroff is a Vancouver-based lawyer who specializes in animal rights. (Submitted by Victoria Shroff )

The claimant, Sahar Bayat, a nurse, and her former partner, Omid Mavedati, a veterinarian, bought the dog in August 2020 when they were living together. The relationship ended in February 2023, according to the court transcript.

Neilsen said in his decision it was clear Bayat and Mavedati both love the dog, as evidenced by the money and effort they invested in the legal proceedings.

He said changes to the laws made in January “essentially put the ownership of a companion animal, such as Stella, in the context of something that goes beyond ownership of a chattel.”

Previously, a pet caught in a custody dispute would simply go to whoever was deemed to have bought or owned it.

Now the court must consider eight factors, including the circumstances in which the animal was acquired, the extent to which each party cared for it, any history of family violence, and the bond the pet has with any children. 

“B.C., being the first province in Canada to have legislation like this, to say what we’re doing here is we’re actually treating animals as beyond merely property … that is huge,” said Schroff. 

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