Domestic Violence Shelters must be pet-friendly by Ed Boks

A recent Washington Post article Little by little, domestic violence shelters become pet-friendly reports on a widening body of research regarding domestic violence.  Over two decades of research has found that abusive partners often threaten, injure and even kill victims’ pets so as to persuade the victim not to leave.

Frank Ascione

In fact, surveys of women at shelters found that 20 to 50 percent say that fear for a pet’s safety delayed their decision to flee.  “These situations are particularly dire when victims are deeply attached to their pets”, said Frank Ascione, a University of Denver psychologist who has published numerous studies on the topic.

“Particularly in households with no children”, Ascione said, “the pet or companion animal may be the only source of safe, affectionate contact that a woman has in her environment.”

More and more shelters are starting to ask questions about pets as part of their intake procedure, and a shelter directory published by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence now includes information about facilities’ pet policies.  Yet while more than 100 shelters in the United States allow animals, they’re still a small minority — amounting to as little as 3 percent of shelters.

Why are there so few pet-friendly shelters?  Because becoming pet-friendly isn’t easy.  Many questions must be considered: Who will clean the pet area? Will animals require food or veterinary care? What if other residents have allergies? And what about liability insurance?

It gets complicated; and while a lot of shelters recognize the problem, the investment is significant and difficult to make.

Shelters use various models to assist with pets.  Some do not house animals but partner with local veterinary clinics or animal shelters that agree to put up the critters temporarily.  Some work with foster families that will take in victims’ pets.  Some have a storage closet set aside for crated animals; others let pets stay in rooms with residents.

Shape of things to come:

Construction is underway in New York City for the nation’s first shelter custom-built for victims and pets.  Run by the nonprofit Urban Resource Institute and scheduled to open this fall, it will have 30 pet-friendly apartments in a building that can house about 100 people.  Based on guidance from pet behaviorists from Purina, a partner in the project, it will feature pastel colors said to be soothing to animals, flooring with enough traction for feet with claws and elevated surfaces such as high bookshelves for cats to climb.

Dr. Kurt Venator, veterinarian of Nestle Purina

Outside will be a fenced, parklike “pet haven” — important because victims, having fled abusers who might try to track them down, need a secure place to get their dogs some exercise, said Kurt Venator, Purina’s chief veterinary officer.  “Taking them for a walk on the city street is just not an option,” he said.

The Urban Resource Institute has accepted pets in four of its domestic violence shelters since 2013 — dogs and cats, plus a few turtles and one bearded dragon — but this will be its first “intentional” space created with victims and animals in mind, said President and CEO Nathaniel Fields.  It reflects providers’ increasing realization that they must focus on reducing the hurdles that victims face when leaving an abuser.

“We recognized that, when you look at the percentage of households that have pets, and the realities of domestic violence, that our work was to reduce the obstacles,” he said. “Let’s not put a survivor in an impossible situation of choosing between their own safety and the safety of their pets.”

Proposed legislation in Congress

Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.)

The Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act would provide grant funding for programs and shelters to assist domestic violence victims who have pets.  One sponsor of the House version, Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.), said she was spurred to introduce it after hearing the stories of victims in her state, including one whose abuser decapitated her dog and another whose abuser shut a pet “in a drawer until the abuser felt that the victim had been appropriately apologetic.”

The bipartisan measure, which the Senate Agriculture Committee included last week in the Farm Bill, should be an easy win, Clark said.  But it has been passed over in previous sessions.

“Pets don’t care about our politics,” Clark said in an interview. “This is a good way to really reach across party lines and ideologies and do a bill that is indisputably good for animals but is really about helping people in dire situations.”

“Going through a situation like this is traumatic enough,” one victim of abuse said.  “It’s the same way for pets, and I really don’t think separating them from their owners does any good for them, either …. Once we’re gone, who’s left to abuse but the animals?  The animals can’t fight back — the animals can’t pick up the phone and call the police.”

Let your federal representatives know how you feel about the Pets and Women Safety (PAWS) Act.