October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month here in the United States, so we’re going to do our part to put a spotlight on this issue through this special column on how pets are affected by domestic violence, how pets are used by abusers to terrorize their victims, and what you can do to help domestic violence victims ensure that their pets are safe if they choose to leave their abuser. This column was inspired by the following letter, which we received last year:
Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
PLEASE HELP! My heart is breaking right now and I really really need advice — I simply don’t know where to turn or who to talk to.
Last month I started to notice a pretty little kitty hanging around in my back yard. I guess I made the big mistake of starting to feed her. The second time I saw her, she came right up to me and sat in my lap purring. I have never seen such a friendly stray. If it were up to me, I’d have taken her in right then, but my husband is absolutely adamant about it as he doesn’t want the two cats that we do have.
I wanted to take her to be neutered but we do not have a car and I was trying to sort the logistics of that when I realized it was too late: she is pregnant.
My husband went away last week, and I put her in my basement when it was pouring down, and now she thinks this is her home. When he got back, he found out and went crazy. He threw out all the bedding I had set up for her and wrecked the little shelter outside. Unfortunately he can be very mean. He said he doesn’t want her around anymore.
I contacted the no-kill shelter in our area, and they said they could take her if she is friendly (which she is) which is most likely what I shall have to do, but the thought of her being in a cage all day kills me.
Please help me decide what to do. Which is worse — taking her to a shelter or leaving her to stay outside in the cold to have her kittens? Like I said, my husband can be cruel, so there is no way I could ever get him to agree to taking her in (not even in the basement). I haven’t stopped crying for two days.
We sent this writer a personal response right away, not only because we were worried about the cat’s situation but because Mama was extremely concerned about the writer’s safety as well. Mama has friends whose pets were used by abusers to manipulate and terrorize them, and as a person who witnessed domestic violence as a child she feels this is an extremely important issue.
Siouxsie: It’s widely acknowledged that there’s a close connection between animal abuse and domestic violence. Not only do abusers threaten or hurt animals to scare their victims, but sometimes children in violent families even end up being abusive toward animals, too.
Thomas: There is also a lot of well-documented research showing that domestic violence victims with pets will refuse to leave the abuser because they can get shelter for themselves and their children, but not for their pets. Understandably, they’re terrified of what the abuser will do to the pets if they’re left with the abuser.
Dahlia: This article provides a brief description of how pets are victims in domestic violence as well as a very brief list of how a domestic violence victim can make a safe escape with their pets.
Siouxsie: The good news is that because more and more domestic violence shelters and animal rescue organizations are becoming aware of the issue, programs have started taking root throughout the US. The Humane Society of the United States has established an initiative called First Strike: The Connection Between Animal Cruelty and Domestic Violence. Part of the First Strike initiative is the Safe Haven for Animals program, which brings together domestic violence victim advocates and animal rescue agencies to ensure that family pets can escape domestic violence, too.
Thomas: American Humane has created a Pets and Women’s Shelters (PAWS) program which helps these shelters to house pets as well as people and work with local animal rescue agencies to house or find foster care for pets fleeing domestic violence.
Dahlia: The PAWS website also has a link to a startup guide, so if you want to start such a program in area you can do so.
Siouxsie: What else can you do? Talk to your local animal shelter and domestic violence agency and see if they have any kind of program in place to help victims’ pets. If they do, see how you can participate or assist in the effort. If not, see what you can do to start one up.
Thomas: Remember that domestic violence advocacy groups and animal shelters are overburdened and underfunded right now, so they won’t respond well to a “you should do this” approach. They have all they can do right now just to provide the current level of services they offer. However, if you and a group of your friends see this need and you’re inspired to take it on, you will almost certainly get a positive response.
Dahlia: We recommend that you work with your local animal shelter or with someone who’s experienced in starting and organizing community efforts so that you can make sure you’re not reinventing the wheel, and that you have all the necessary paperwork and other legal formalities in place. You also need to make sure you have procedures in place that keeps your network members safe.
Siouxsie: Once you’ve got your group or foster home network organized, bring it to the attention of your local domestic violence advocacy group, animal rescue agencies, and law enforcement. You’ll have done a wonderful thing if you can help even one more domestic violence victim escape an abusive relationship.
Thomas: And of course, remember that domestic violence happens in families of all income levels, races, religions, and lifestyles. Although the vast majority of domestic violence victims are women, it also happens to men. It also happens in same-sex relationships.
Dahlia: Domestic violence messes up people’s minds, and it takes tremendous courage and strength for a victim to leave the abuser, so be sure to have compassion (not pity) and be sure not to blame the victim for not leaving earlier.
Siouxsie: If you’re currently in an abusive relationship, please know that there are ways that you can get your animals safe as well as yourself and your children (if you have any). Even if you just ask a friend to take care of them for a while, you’ll know they’re not with the abuser.
Thomas: We know how hard it is to even admit to yourself what’s going on and that you need — and deserve — to get out, and we know it’s hard to ask for help because there’s a lot of fear and shame involved. But we think you’ll surprised how much compassion you’ll find in your community and among your friends. You’re not alone, and help is out there. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is one resource (in the US), and there are local and regional domestic violence shelters all over the US and Canada.
Dahlia: Finally, we pray that the person who wrote the letter that inspired this column has been able to leave the relationship and that she and all her pets are safe and recovering from their trauma.