The young mother was ready to escape her abuser and called Safe Homes of Orange County looking for shelter for herself and her daughter. The organization was ready and able to provide housing but there was just one problem. The little girl was very attached to her small pet and didn’t want to leave him behind.
“The mother was adamant that there was no way she could leave the pet with her abuser as it would be too traumatic for her daughter,” said Sarita Green, associate director, Safe Homes of Orange County.
This story is not unique. Seventy-one percent of women with pets entering domestic violence shelters report that their abuser threatened, harmed or killed a family pet. Yet very few domestic violence shelters nationwide are able to accommodate victims’ pets. According to the ASPCA, as many as 25 percent of domestic violence survivors have reported returning to an abusive partner out of concern for their pet.
That fear is often justified. A growing body of research shows that men who hit their wives and children often extend that abuse to family pets as well. And when women dare to leave their abusers, these animals may suffer dire consequences. One man drowned his wife’s two cats in the swimming pool, another fried his children’s goldfish and one woman at a shelter received an audiotape containing the howls of her dog as it was being tortured.
Partnership between Women’s Shelter and Animal Shelter Protects More Lives
When Green started working for Safe Homes of Orange County in 2010, she heard from many women who were ready to escape their abusers but wouldn’t leave their beloved pets behind. Some of these women found family or friends to take their pets but many weren’t so lucky and chose to remain with the abuser. Green reached out to local animal shelters hoping to form a partnership, but without funding, none were able to take in additional animals.
That changed in 2013 when a volunteer at the Warwick Valley Humane Society (WVHS) suggested a partnership between the animal shelter and Safe Homes of Orange County. That led to the launching of the Safe Pets Program.
“Having taken many courses on the link between domestic violence and animal abuse, we chose to be proactive and prevent a potential animal cruelty situation where the pet is injured or killed,”� said Suzyn Barron, WVHS president. “It is important to us morally to partner with Safe Homes. Although we have limited space and are pretty much always at full and beyond capacity, we pride ourselves on being able to creatively make room when that call comes”�
Photo caption: Left to right are Suzyn Barron, president of WVHS; Sarita Green, associate director of Safe Homes of Orange County; and Leslie Maier, volunteer at WVHS who first suggested the partnership between the two shelters. Photo courtesy of Safe Homes of Orange County
The WVHS cares for the pets of domestic violence victims at an undisclosed facility for 60 to 90 days. The shelter has extended this time period while families are in the care of Safe Homes of Orange County, and offer a grace period if a few extra days are needed after families settle into their new lives. Animals unable to be reunited with their families are adopted into loving homes.
Animals admitted through the Safe Pets Program are provided with food, needed vaccinations, spay/neuter, flea/tick and heartworm preventative as well as grooming—all free of charge. Barron said they are grateful for a Red Rover relief grant that helps with the care of victims’ pets for up to 60 days. Shelter staff also provide the love and nurturing needed to help the animals recover from the trauma of living with domestic violence.
“It usually takes several days to weeks for the pets to realize that they are safe and start to adjust to their surroundings and to us,” Barron said. “Although my staff is not specifically trained in this area, they deal with animals on a daily basis, whether lost, abandoned, unwanted or abused and know how to help pets with emotional and behavior issues.”
Pets Often the Only Link Domestic Violence Victims Have to Love and Affection
Green said the impact this program has on the lives of domestic violence victims is enormous. She sites one family who was very attached to their cat. The cat had significant medical needs and was successfully treated at the WVHS and reunited with the family.
“Without the help of the Safe Pets Program, I’m not sure this woman would not have been able to keep her cat because of the cost of the medical needs,” Green said.
Pets, she added, are often the only link victims of domestic violence have to love and affection.
“This connection is really important because so much of a woman’s life has to change for her to get herself and her family to safety,” Green added. “Her child has to leave behind friends and go to a different school and she has to leave her job and all of her possessions. She’s basically choosing homelessness in order to be safe.”
While it’s certainly expensive and time-consuming to be a partner with Safe Homes of Orange County, Barron said it is well worth the effort. The shelter staff is especially gratified when they watch families visit with their beloved pets.
“We can see how loved the pets are and it’s gratifying to know that we helped facilitate their decision to leave an unhealthy and unsafe situation for all,” Barron said. “My staff is proud of the work they do. Hopefully, other shelters will consider joining our efforts in preventing animal abuse of this kind.”
To learn more about how to help the Warwick Valley Humane Society in its mission to help animals in need, visit their website.
Since 2007, RedRover has awarded thousands of dollars in grants to help care for and shelter animals displaced by family violence.
SafePlaceforPets.org is an online directory of pet support programs for pet owners facing domestic violence.
Photo credit: Thinkstock