Sylvester? Nay, Marshmallow

In a case involving custody of a cat, a New York Court let the kitty help decide who he wanted to live with (after considering the totality of the circumstances). In doing so, the judge refused to provide the time honored rule of personal property involving “things that can be used, handled, or transported” and instead ruled that “it is time to declare that a pet should no longer be considered ‘personal property’ like a table or car.”

The case involved two families who claimed that the cat was theirs. The  plaintiff started feeding a skinny cat who came around looking for food, caring for him for months, providing veterinary care including vaccinations (he was already neutered) and eventually turning him into an indoor cat. But one day, “Sylvester” got out and went back to his original home.

The defendant claimed “Sylvester’s” real name is Marshmallow, the family got him as a kitten, neutered him, and then put in a cat door, allowing him to come and go as he pleased. He lived with them for 10 years.

In abandoning the rule regarding “chattel property,” it employed a “best interests” of “all concerned” standard including the cat and both litigants. While it found it was a close call, it ultimately let the cat help choose and found that when Marshmallow got out of plaintiff’s house, he “voted with his feet” by returning “to his home of ten years with the Defendant and her children.”

Regardless of whether it made the right call in awarding custody, the court’s recognition that cats are more than mere property is an important legal victory for animals and a vital step towards eventual recognition of legal personhood and the kinds of rights and protections we afford to children and other at-risk groups, including the appointment of a guardian ad litem (a legal representative in court). As the Oregon Supreme Court recently ruled, “As we continue to learn more about the interrelated nature of all life, the day may come when humans perceive less separation between themselves and other living beings than the law now reflects.”

The case is Finn vs. Anderson.

(As I could not find a photo of Marshmallow, the photo is of The Amazing Kenny, my cat.)


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