The gloves were off. The divorcing couple had resolved almost everything except who would get their beloved dog, Cody. Accusations of “dog-napping” were traded, and the exes repeatedly stole Cody from each other’s backyards.
Enter Debra Vey Voda-Hamilton (hamiltonlawandmediation.com), an Armonk- based attorney who specializes in animal mediation. “I know you hate your ex; unfortunately, your dog doesn’t,” she’d told the couple. Eventually, Voda-Hamilton worked out a joint-custody arrangement.
A former litigator and animal lover, Voda-Hamilton believes that mediation is a kinder, less expensive, and more effective alternative to court battles. Under New York State law (and in every other state), pets are considered property. The courts must follow the statute, treating a cherished pet no differently than a sofa or coffee table.
Yet, a 2016 Harris Poll found that 95 percent of US pet owners consider pets to be members of the family. It’s no wonder passions run high. “It’s so much better if you can just sit down and talk to each other,” says Voda-Hamilton, whose work has been featured on media outlets ranging from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal to Today, Reuters and Bloomberg. “There’s a depth of emotional angst for pets.” Voda-Hamilton works with parties to have them listen to each other, drop the need to be “right,” and focus on solutions.
Voda-Hamilton also mediates conflicts between pet owners and veterinarians, groomers, breeders, handlers, and others who provide services to animals. Unhappy clients can inflict serious harm to businesses through social media, so providers have incentives to come to the table. Other cases involve therapy animals (as differentiated from service animals) and access to restaurants and housing. And of course there are conflicts over barking dogs, biting dogs, and rambunctious horses.
She also encourages pet owners to have a plan in place if they become incapacitated (something she experienced when she broke an ankle but had nine dogs to walk). Even end-of-life care and pet trusts are in her wheelhouse, something especially important for pets like parrots and turtles, which may outlive their owners.
“Most conflicts over animals are driven by emotion, not money,” says Voda-Hamilton. “That’s why mediation is so much better than litigation.”