The Rendell break-up: Is there a dog custody war ahead?

The Rendells with Ginger (left) and Maggie in Judge Marjorie O. Rendell's office in Center City.

When the news arrived Monday that ex-Gov. Rendell and his wife Midge were splitting up after 40 years of marriage many animal lovers in Pennsylvania had one thought:

What happens to Maggie and Ginger?

As readers of the Inquirer and this blog know, Maggie and Ginger are the Rendells' beloved Golden Retrievers, seen often by the governor's side during his eight years in office.

The dogs are central to both their lives. While the two say they have parted amicably and there has been no mention of divorce, living apart means they will have to make a difficult decision about their pets. (We put in an email request with Gov. Rendell for an answer but we have not yet received a response.)

Maggie and Ginger (referred to by Rendell as "the girls") were fixtures in Harrisburg, appearing at bill signings and rallies. They rode in chauffeured sedans used by the governor and his wife. At the mansion the governor was famous for slipping them treats under the table at formal dinners. During his weight loss campaign last year Rendell told me he divvied up leftovers with the dogs. On a Friday before a weekend at the beach last summer, he made sure staff packing car for weekend remembered their toys.

Rendell often shared anecdotes about their activities with the press corps: how they stole Christmas gingerbread decorations and lounged with him by the mansion "pool" (otherwise known as a plastic baby pool) on summer days.

The couple's decision in 2007 to adopt Maggie, a rescued puppy mill breeder dog, to keep Ginger company after the loss of their senior Golden Mandy was front page news.

The Rendell's will hardly be the first couple parting ways to face a pet custody issue. As pets occupy a more central place in American families, the issue of who gets custody when a couple splits up looms large in more and more divorce and separation cases.

Courts and legislatures in a number of states, including New Jersey, are shifting toward granting more rights to the pet for its unique status “between a human and an object.”

Not Pennsylvania.

Here the Superior Court ruled in 2002 that pets are property and a custody contract involving a pet would be like establishing a "visitation schedule for a table or lamp."

Fortunately, many couples work out pet custody amicably, said Mindey Elgart, a Bucks County attorney who specializes in divorce mediation. "They are more willing to work out an agreement with a pet then with money," she said.

Would that human relationships withstood the elements like that of a dog and their person. In 1869 a Missouri attorney (and later U.S. Senator) named George G. Vest, made an impassioned closing argument in a case in which damages were sought in the killing of a dog named Old Drum:

"Gentlemen of the jury, a man’s dog stands by him, in prosperity and poverty, in health and sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry wind blows and the snow drives fiercely if only he may be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer; he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounter with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince.


When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wing and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens.


If fortune drives his master forth an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him to guard against danger, to fight his enemies, and when the last scene of all comes and death takes the master in its embrace and his body is laid away, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even unto death."