This is the story behind a landmark court decision in Turkey involving a couple’s clash over who gets to keep the cats after a breakup.
A couple in their 20s, who requested to remain anonymous, were living in Istanbul when they decided to add more joy to their life by adopting two cats. Everything seemed perfect until their breakup in 2016.
The cats stayed with the woman, but two years later, the man demanded ownership of the cats, and when he was rejected, he took the matter to a court.
The lawsuit took approximately four years, during which the man claimed he had only left the cats with his ex-girlfriend until he could find a new apartment. The woman denied the existence of such an agreement.
“The lawsuit came out of the blue for my client. There had not been any requests to take the cats, let alone seeing them, by the plaintiff up until then,” the woman’s lawyer told TRT World.
The plaintiff could not be reached for comment.
The court eventually sided with the woman because they found that it would be the best decision for the psychological well being of the cats. However, the legal battle is not over yet as the plaintiff objected to the court’s decision.
The furry companions
“Piraye is a queen if I have ever seen one. She is absolutely gorgeous and she knows it,” the woman told TRT World. The couple had adopted Piraye in 2013.
“Cingoz may well be the most loving cat in the world, a total lap cat. He follows me everywhere, and is always wanting to feel my presence,” she added. Cingoz is a rescue that the couple adopted in 2015.
Cingoz was very sick when the couple took him in. He went through rigorous treatment that the defendant covered, but lost his sight despite every effort to save it. Nevertheless, he still has an eye and can sense some light through it, allowing him to remain a fan of gazing out the window like his sister Piraye.
Despite his condition, Cingoz is a very playful cat that can turn anything into a toy, although there is no scarcity of toys in the house.
“What amazes me about Cingoz is that he has memorised the lay of the land. He knows every corner of the house and runs around without bumping into anything,” said the woman.
All three of them have a deep connection with one another. They are her “family” in the words of the woman.
“The court process was very scary. I had a strong case as their primary caregiver, but the slightest idea of potentially losing them was devastating for me. I feel very lucky to have them,” she said.
A landmark approach
Under Turkish law, animals had property status. And the lawsuit was in fact a movable property lawsuit. However, due to the sides’ approach to the case, including the court, the lawsuit turned into what can be considered a custody battle.
Turkey recently passed a new bill on animal rights, which removed animals from their status as property and acknowledged them as living beings. According to the bill, the sale of cats and dogs by pet shops will be banned, as such shops are “not suitable for animal health and ethology”.
Animal circuses, water circuses and dolphin parks will also be prohibited. Cat and dog owners will be required to have digital IDs or registration and will face fines if they abandon their pets.
The international treaties regarding animal rights that Turkey has ratified were also in play for the court’s decision. According to that law, animals are sui generis, or of unique nature.
“The court had a landmark approach. They considered the cats not as objects, but as living beings from the very beginning,” said the lawyer, Oguzhan Bostanoglu.
Both sides approached the case as if it was a custody battle, trying to prove that they were deserving of having Piraye and Cingoz as if they were their actual children.
Three witnesses from each side appeared before the judge to give their accounts on how the defendant and plaintiff interacted with the cats, and whether they were suitable for ownership.
Moreover, the court demanded expert opinion for the lawsuit to find out whether moving the cats would be harmful for their mental health. An expert veterinarian visited the cats at the defendant’s house to observe their living conditions.
The veterinarian’s report stated that every need of the cats were met by the woman, and that they were in optimal health.
Furthermore, the report included assessments about the nature of the animals. As sentient beings, cats experience psychological distress when removed from their usual environment, which can lead to changes in their eating and sleeping patterns and in turn cause illness.
This would especially be the case for Cingoz, who is blind, as he would be put in an environment he would not be able to navigate, the expert argued.
It was clear from the report that Piraye and Cingoz should remain with their primary caregiver, the defendant.
“The court’s decision could have been different if they had approached the cats as commodities. The process would, without a doubt, have been different,” said the defendant’s lawyer.
The crucial point in the case was that the plaintiff, for two years, had not made contact with the cats, did not meet their material or nonmaterial needs, and did not request ownership.
According to the law, under such circumstances, the individual is considered to have given up their ownership rights. This was also the court’s decision as they gave ownership, or “custody” to the woman who had been the primary caregiver.
“I have not encountered any legal case similar to this. When I first saw the lawsuit, I hoped the court would approach the cats as living beings rather than mere objects, and I am happy to see that they did. I believe the process, as well as the decision, was fitting. This case is exemplary for similar future cases,” told the lawyer.
The court recognised that despite the fact that we don't know everything about the mental and spiritual abilities of animals, it is clear that they are sentient and can feel pain or happiness.
The case also clearly shows that animals should not be regarded as commodities under law.
“Animals are not objects to do what you want with. They have feelings. They must be approached as living beings who have their rights, their well-being should be looked out for because they cannot do that themselves,” said the woman.
“To me, it has always been a custody case. I see my cats as my kids. I am delighted that the court made a decision in line with that by considering their mental health.”