“I often think about Diana and weep,” says writer Scott Manley Hadley. “I have no idea if she is still alive.”
The 31-year-old is talking about his cat – a “pretty but disdainful” creature called Diana – that he lost custody of two years ago. Scott had bought a cat and a dog with his ex-girlfriend but, following years of disagreements and a stormy breakup, he was forced to cut his losses. He kept the dog; she kept Diana.
“I miss her presence,” the Bad Boy Poet author adds, mournfully. “She was an aloof cat, but she was mine.”
Such is the pain of losing a fur baby. We are, after all, the generation of fur parents. According to statistics and media coverage, young people are becoming increasingly obsessed with getting a pet. Brits spent a reported £1.7 billion last year in the UK on their pets’ upkeep and maintenance. Many of us are even choosing them over the experience of actual human parenthood. It makes sense, really: we’ve got no time, no job stability, and are facing an earth-shattering mass extinction. Who even has time to fertilise and cook a small genetic clone of themselves? Why not just buy a gerbil instead?
The craze for fur babies (see also: furkids, furchildren) has also infected our romantic relationships. Where previous generations would get married or buy a house (lol) with their significant other, getting a pet is now seen as the safer, more accessible option; a way of testing out your co-parenting skills, while also simulating the experience of actual responsibility.
Unfortunately, everything ends. So what happens when you fall out of love with the co-parent of your fur baby? How do you decide who gets custody of the dog, snake or exotic bird in your breakup? And is there really such a thing as an amicable compromise?
For the most part, it seems not. Breakups are wrenching enough without the added strain of a custody battle, which can often turn into a battleground for revenge.
“I really struggled with the decision to break up,” remembers Harriet*. The 28-year-old quantity surveyor was with her partner for three years, adopting two French bulldogs – Rocky (“shy”) and Zeus (“incredibly thick”) – with him. Her fear of the inevitable custody battle was so intense that it led her to stay with her ex for nearly two years longer than she wanted to.
“I really thought that he would take the dogs from me, because he is the sort of person who would be spiteful enough to do that.”
It was only when they moved to different cities for work – him to Birmingham, and her to London – that the decision could finally be made.
“I tried to slowly sneak them away from him,” she says. “The dogs used to spend one week with him, and one with me, so I just started keeping them at my house for longer and longer periods of time. I didn’t want to show him that the dogs were my weakness, because I thought that he would take advantage of that. I waited until he brought it up when we broke up, and he said he couldn’t look after them because of his job. So I said that I would take them.”
For 29-year-old estate agent Chris Casey-Kon, things didn’t go so smoothly. He also adopted two French bulldogs with his ex – Banksy (“needy”) and Charlie (“muscular”) – but that didn’t stop their relationship from falling apart. “It was really toxic between us,” he says. “He was an absolute twat.”
After calling time on things after three years, Chris ended up being locked out of the couple’s shared flat and banned from having any contact with the dogs. “My ex messaged me saying, ‘You can forget about seeing them ever again’,” he remembers. “I knew he meant it because he had a really evil side to him.”
The only plan of action was a drastic one. Chris gathered his papers for Charlie, who had been bought in his name, and waited outside his old flat for the dog walker. He then followed him and the dogs to their traditional walking spot in London, Clapham Common.
“The dog walker had been given the heads up by my ex of what was going on, because as soon as he saw me he panicked,” Chris says. “So I just gave him the paperwork, picked up Charlie, and walked off. He was screaming, ‘Don’t do this to me!’ But I kept walking.”
The screams were hard to ignore. “I put Charlie down, because he’s an absolute tank to carry, and I jogged back to the car,” he says. “Then this random passerby [who had heard the dog walker’s screams] starts opening the car door as I’m getting into it, before booting my friend’s car and denting it.”
In this scenario, Chris had the law on his side. Unlike actual human children, pets are seen as possessions by the UK judicial system, like a fridge or a sofa. This generally means that whoever bought the animal initially has the legal right to keep it.
“I knew what the responsibility was,” Chris adds. “That’s why I registered Charlie in my name. I preempted that something like this would happen.”
However, while this is great if you’re the one whose name is on the papers, it also means nothing else – including love, time spent on care, or the pet’s best interests – is taken into account.
“When you have a child with an ex, there is a whole legal and social system designed to make sure that child has access to both parents,” says Scott. “But if you’re trying to share a pet you’re on your own. There should be laws for protecting the rights of pet ownership.”
So how can all this drama be prevented? According to the Blue Cross charity, pessimism is the best policy: be clear from the beginning who will take responsibility, or how your split custody would work, if things were to go awry. They also recommend getting a ‘pet-nuptial’ agreement if you’re entering into a marriage or civil partnership, which would help to cement any post-breakup custody arrangements.
For Scott, though, the lesson has already been learned. Fur babies – just like real babies – are a big responsibility, and their loss can hit hard. Now, he says, he wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes, and would think twice before entering into a co-ownership with another partner.
“I was in a volatile relationship, and by the time we bought pets it was just papering over the cracks,” he says. “Should we break up? No, let’s buy a pet!”
It could be worse, though. “Thank god it was a pet and not a child is what I’ve often thought. I’m very, very glad about that, at least.”
* Name has been changed