Pet shelter supports domestic violence victims

When Allie, an anonymous source, was still living with her abuser, her pets, normally a source of comfort and refuge, became a tool used to threaten and punish her.

“(He would) constantly threaten me with (the dogs),” Allie said. “He would say, ‘If you don’t do what you’re supposed to, I’m getting rid of the dogs.’ Or, his famous thing was (to say) I didn’t deserve them or I didn’t act right. When he got rid of my animals before, he told me and other people that I didn’t deserve any pets and that I didn’t take care of them.”

This method of punishment is not uncommon for women living in homes with domestic violence. In a recent study published by the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, professor of human and community development Jennifer Hardesty analyzed the roles that pets play in women’s relationships with their abusers. Nine out of 19 abused women that she interviewed reported that their abuser had used their pets as a control tactic in the relationship. In eight out of those nine cases, this included violent threats, or even physical abuse of the pet. In Allie’s case, her abuser took her dogs away and had them euthanized in order to teach her a lesson.

“I didn’t really have a choice in the matter,” Allie said. “With him taking (the pets), I had no control. I don’t know how the animals are treated. I fear(ed) for him getting rid of them and (for me) not seeing them again.”

The Veterinary Medicine program at the University provides aid to women at local domestic violence shelters by offering a temporary home for their pets while they try to find a stable living situation for themselves, and their children.

A Pet’s Place program, which was founded by veterinary medicine students and faculty in 2001, takes in the pets for 30 days and provides them with full veterinary care, giving them vaccinations and providing any other health services that may be necessary for the pets. Hardesty and her colleagues Marcella Ridgway and Cheryl Weber hope the pet shelter eliminates any hesitation women have about leaving their abusive environment.

“We believed that reluctance to leave behind a beloved pet might prevent or delay the woman leaving, therefore keeping her in a perilous circumstance,” Ridgway said. “The availability of care for the pet would facilitate women seeking safety.”

Lisa Little, a court advocate at Champaign’s Center for Women in Transition, agreed that Pet’s Place enables women to leave their abusive environment.

“In many cases with domestic violence, the most dangerous time for them is when they leave,” Little said. “When the women are no longer there, the abuser may take out their violence on the animal that is still at home. Knowing that their animals are unsafe often keeps victims at home.”

A Pet’s Place allows women to be worried about one less thing while trying to relocate their families, Hardesty said.

“They sometimes felt like they should be worrying about their kids, their own safety and getting housing and they didn’t feel like they should be worrying about their pets,” she said. “They wanted to be given permission to be worried about their pets.”

Hardesty found in her study that finding a safe home for the pets and later reuniting with the pets was also a critical part of women’s emotional recovery process.

“This study will just add to the growing body of literature saying that veterinarians, domestic violence workers, etc. all need to be looking at the needs of pets in these homes, but also to support the emotional bonds that women have to their pets,” Hardesty said. “It can be important for kids too, because if they have lost their home, moved to a different home and have gone through a lot of transitions, having something that is stable and having that reunion with their pet can be really positive.”

The Pet’s Place shelter at the University offers its services to any woman that is staying at local women’s shelters, but in order to preserve confidentiality, the shelter is at an undisclosed location and does not often advertise its services to the broader community. For this reason, Hardesty said, women are most likely to find out about these services when they first contact the shelter or when they visit their local veterinarian.

“It is so challenging to get the word out to people that need the service, and still keep them safe,” Hardesty said.

Local women’s shelters such as the Center for Women in Transition already ask women about their pets as part of their standard protocol, but they will continue to emphasize the emotional bonds between women and their pets in order to help the women rediscover stability in their lives.

“If I had known about (this program) ahead of time, that would have saved my animals through the years (that) I’ve lost because of (my abuser),” Allie said.

Marycate can be reached [email protected]