Survivors of Violence Need Not Leave Beloved Pets Behind
(Lara Mossa, Feb. 2, 2019)
PONTIAC, MI – It was 2001.
Dr. Tracy Thompson knew she had to do something.
Thompson had only the clothes on her back and a hastily-packed suitcase when she left her husband. He had tried to hold her against her will – even locking her in a closet. She had to get out of the unsafe situation.
But she didn’t want to leave Sable, her cat, behind.
“I know that with the kind of person that he was – after what he had done to me – he would have harmed my cat and maybe killed her,” said Thompson, who is now 58 and living in Southfield. “So, I wanted to take her with me. It’s so important.”
While it hasn’t always been the case, there are now facilities that harbor both domestic violence victims and their pets. U.S. Senator Gary Peters recently helped sign into legislation a law that expands federal domestic violence protections to include threats or acts of violence against a victim’s pet.
“It is part of the healing process for them as they move from being a victim to being a survivor and moving on with their lives,” said Peters, speaking at the Farber Family Pet Center Friday morning.
The Pontiac shelter can house up to five dogs and six cats at a time as well as small domestic animals such as guinea pigs and hamsters. HAVEN, an Oakland County organization that provides programs and services for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, opened the facility in 2017. Victims who flee with their pets can receive shelter for an average of one to three months while they get back on their feet, said Aimee Nimeh, President and Chief Executive Officer of HAVEN.
Studies show that people who are being abused will stay in the home up to two years longer if they have a pet being threatened, she said.
“What we’ve seen in our work is that, oftentimes, survivors are put in a position where they have to choose between their own personal safety in fleeing a situation and the safety of their beloved pet. In over half of cases when someone is being abused by an intimate partner, their pet is also being threatened with abuse and, oftentimes, with death as well.”
Only 3 percent of domestic violence shelters nationwide have the ability to provide safe harbor for survivors and their pets, Peters said. The Michigan Humane Society provided expertise when the 930-square-foot facility was built as well as supplies and equipment. Mike Palmer, owner of Premier Pet Supply, also donated a fence, food, toys and other pet supplies.
Currently, there are no animals in the shelter, but the facility typically houses two or three dogs or cats.
“Pets are a legitimate part of any family, and there is no reason to separate family members in times of crisis,” said Doug Plant, Chief Mission Officer at Michigan Humane Society. “It’s critical they stay together.”
The Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act provides additional funding as well as stiffer penalties for animal abuse. According to HAVEN, which stands for Help Against Violent Encounters Now, a national study of survivors of domestic violence concluded that 54 percent of survivors living in a shelter have experienced the injury or death of a pet at the hands of their abuser.
“This is really an example of a program that is really innovative,” Peters said. “In fact, very few shelters across our state or across our county have services like you can find here at HAVEN where you can bring a beloved pet and know it’s going to be safe.”
In Thompson’s opinion, this could make all the difference.
“I’m excited we are finally getting to a point where we are able to see that animals are important to victims of domestic violence,” said Thompson, a volunteer and speaker for HAVEN. “My greatest fear is that he would have hurt her or killed her.”
Besides emergency shelters, HAVEN provides medical forensic exams, counseling, court advocacy, prevention education and a 24/7 crisis line. For more information, go to www.haven-oakland.org.