Domestic violence affects all the members of a household, including the animals. In fact, some abusers threaten or injure family pets to intimidate or maintain control over the humans in the home. Imagine being in such a predicament – you know that your animals are at risk, but packing them all up quickly and getting them out of the house to escape an abuser may not be possible. And leaving them means neglect or more likely, death.
While it seems unbelievable for those of us not ensnared in such a situation, leaving their animals in the hands of an abuser can be unthinkable for victims for these reasons. And so, they stay in violent homes.
This week, the state of Maine gave abused pet owners a little more incentive to leave. Maine passed a law allowing judges to include pets in protective orders for spouses and partners leaving abusive relationships. This is the first such law in the United States, and it takes away one more roadblock that battered woman might have for not leaving their abuser.
“This is a very innovative, new approach, and it makes perfect sense because the protection order is a critical stage for women and others seeking protection,” says the Humane Society of the United States’ Nancy Perry.
Those who work with domestic violence victims say it’s not unusual for abusers to take out their anger on innocent animals. Deaths to animals are usually not reported because they are hurt or killed as a form of intimidation, and the victims are terrorized into remaining silent. Often, social service agencies consider injuries to pets as a red flag indicating that there is ongoing abuse to children or significant others.
A protection order that includes those animals will give victims more control, and if violated, can give police more authority to arrest the perpetrator. For animal lovers, it’s an important law because it helps protect pets who might die at the hands of abusers – and criminalize animal abuse in those situations. Will truly deranged individuals still harm animals? Probably, but it may stop some and will harshly penalize those who do.
Plus, having such a law could discourage abusers from using a pet to control their human victims, as well as protect animals, says Dani Bolda, executive director at Heartland Humane Society in Corvallis.
“Most people leaving domestic violence situations are not so concerned about having their car wrecked or their TV broken, but this leaving, breathing thing is important to them,” she explains. “Including pets in protective orders does a couple of things. It stresses that pets are more than just possessions that can be damaged, and that they are actually an emotional part of a family. From the legal standpoint it takes that last area of concern that people have about leaving abusers.”
There may not be a law in Oregon to provide legal protection to pets in violent homes, but Heartland has a program to provide care and shelter for the pets of domestic abuse victims. Although such assistance has been available for a few years, in the last year the shelter has worked more closely with local agencies to ensure women who need it get help.
“We started the program because we know the importance of keeping the entire family safe,” Bolda says. “We didn’t want people staying in violent situations because of their animal when we could help.”
Shelter staff work with churches, the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence (CARDV) and Community Outreach to identify women who are leaving abusive homes and have pets. In the shelter or through foster homes, Heartland will house pets for up to 90 days. If the animal is not already altered, staff will work to get the surgery donated. Pets are also vaccinated as needed.
“It’s no cost to the person,” Bolda says. “We just want to be sure the animal is healthy.”
In the past year, Bolda estimates that Heartland has helped at least six battered women and more than 12 animals through the program.
“It’s important so if other organizations that are assisting people in domestic violence situations hear the argument, ‘I don’t want to leave my pet there,’ they have an option,” Bolda says. “It makes the transition to leaving their abusive partner smoother – and there’s one less argument for staying. Everyone living in the household has an opportunity to escape unscathed.”
If you are in an abusive situation, please talk to your local domestic violence shelter or community group, such as CARDV. You can call them at 541-754-0110 if you are local, or use their toll-free number, 800-927-0197. If leaving your pets behind has been a concern for you, please know that it’s possible to get help. We may not yet have a law in Oregon that gives our animals legal protection, but we do have community organizations that want to help.Â