As I sit here on my porch after a summer thunderstorm, surrounded by my dogs, my thoughts turn to the dog days of summer and how my practice, of providing alternative conflict resolution for people in conflict over animals, picks up during this time of year. As we spend more time with our pets outside, conflicts with our neighbors or spouses can become aggravated due to increased noise. When I spend time with my dogs on a lazy summer afternoon I know what I do is essential for others to have the same lazy days with their chosen pet.
It is always a challenge for me to explain to others what I do. It isn’t because I don’t know what I do, rather it’s because I do something so simple to comprehend they say, “Wow, that’s brilliant.”
I am an alternative dispute resolver between people over an animal. I am the person you seek out when you have a dispute involving animals before you resort to litigation. Unnecessary litigation, involving people in conflict over an animal, runs rampant. Not only does it run rampant, it is ham strung in court by the laws that have not kept up with the changing place of animals in our lives and culture. If we could find a way to speak to each other in a safe environment, guided by a neutral mediator, we’d find most people in conflict have a great deal in common and just need to be heard to resolve the conflict.
By definition, Mediation is a process in which parties in conflict work with a neutral third party who provides them with a safe environment in which to have a much needed conversation. Its sister practice, Collaborative law is a process where each client’s attorney signs an agreement not to take the case to trial. Both create a safe environment in which clients can resolve a matter. In collaborative law, your own attorney helps you navigate the legalities more efficiently. A colleague of mine, Katherine Eisold Miller, summarizes the difference between the two quite cleverly. She says, “Mediation is like going to a dance alone and collaborative is going to the dance with a friend.”
These processes have found their most prevalent niche in family and divorce law. The desire for maintaining a relationship between the parties, especially in a divorce involving children, has families choosing to proceed in their conflict via mediation or collaborative practice. These methods ease the parties out of their current dynamic and into their future dynamic with the least amount of animosity. Parties decide how their family will look post divorce. The mediator or collaborative attorney helps them write an agreement that the court will accept, reviewed by an attorney in mediation, recognizing the parties’ desire to remain cordial going forward.
In animal conflict, as in divorce, emotions run very high. Don’t ever tell a dog or cat owner, whose pet died due to the negligence of another, that it was just a dog or cat. However, this is just what the law does. By statute and case law an animal is property and so only has the rights and value of property, (i.e. a chair). In an alternative dispute resolution process, mediation or collaborative, the intrinsic value of the pet can be addressed and respectful discussions can be had acknowledging the value of a pet to all parties concerned.
These discussions enable the pet owner to speak freely about their feelings over the loss of their pet and grieve. The person(s) responsible for the loss can speak as well. Acknowledgement of positions and feelings may enable the parties to move from position to solution. Providing a pet owner the opportunity to hear the animal caregiver’s side of the unfortunate event and all they did to save the pet can give peace to an otherwise unknown variable. It gives the pet owner the opportunity to tell the caregiver their bedside manner may need work. Everyone involved in the unfortunate outcome is able to say they are truly sorry. All the parties are able to express their disappointment in being unable to save the pet. No admissions of guilt or responsibility are required; rather an acknowledgement of the importance of a pet’s life to all parties is confirmed. The fact both parties wanted the pet to live is usually lost in translation when parties start pointing fingers and stop listening. To be able to acknowledge this fact, in a neutral setting, does wonders toward diffusing a highly conflicted situation.
Animal conflicts have yet to become the beneficiary of alternative dispute resolution in any meaningful way. In fact some law schools that are deeply involved in the study of animal law eschew the use of ADR in any animal conflict. They feel its use portends the loss of an opportunity to make law protecting those and future animals. This thinking has its place in the protection of our animals. Yet, in a majority of conflicts between people over animals, the opportunity to have a conversation may resolve the conflict, thus freeing up the court to address more serious conflicts involving animals.
Opening up a dialogue for conflict resolution, on the parties’ terms, gives the people involved in the care and protection of an animal an infinite number of solutions to explore in their crisis. Asking a court to find a solution to a particular conflict diminishes the variety of solutions available to the parties. In the end, the court ordered solution might serve neither the people nor the animal. Who among us know how a court will decide? Are we willing to take the risk when mediation may guide us to a settlement that is palatable to both sides and benefits the animal for whom the conflict arose? Just a thought.
As I sit here, with the sun going down, the ceiling fan slowly moving the warm summer air on me and my dogs, I thank God I’ve been guided to focus my practice on this different method of conflict resolution. All of us should be able to keep these wonderful souls in our lives.
Happy 4th of July.