In 2016, the New York City Domestic Violence Hotline received 83,687 calls – an average of more than 225 every day. What we usually imagine in these tragic scenarios is a human abuser and a human victim, but another resident of that home can and often does play a pivotal role in that conflict: the family pet.
As many as 25 percent of domestic violence survivors have reported returning to an abusive partner out of concern for their pet, and many hesitate to leave because they fear their partner might harm or kill their pet. In addition, 71 percent of these survivors reported that their partner had implicitly or explicitly threatened the animal as a way to maintain power and control the victim.
The danger for both human and animals is clear, but the solution is just as clear: Enable victims of domestic violence to leave safely with their pets and provide housing for both. But many obstacles stand in the way of that goal. For starters, only about 3 percent of domestic violence shelters nationwide are able to accommodate victims’ pets. Also, securing a safe haven for a pet can require time and resources that domestic violence victims rarely have.
Some local organizations are rising to the challenge. In 2013, Urban Resource Institute, a provider of domestic violence programs and services in New York City, launched the URIPALS (People and Animals Living Safely) program, which enables domestic violence survivors to live with their pets by providing cages and private pet-friendly areas within the facility. The ASPCA has provided ongoing support for URIPALS through grants, fostering, and by facilitating services at the ASPCA Animal Hospital.
In 2016, Iowa’s Domestic Violence Intervention Program (DVIP) added dog kennels and cat havens to its facility in Iowa City. They’ve been securing emergency pet housing and fostering for clients’ pets for over ten years.
And just this month, Alabama’s Shelby Humane Society announced it will open its Safe Pet program in 2018. The initiative will work with local domestic violence organizations to place victims’ pets with foster families, animal boarding facilities, and veterinarians until conditions are safe for families to be reunited.
If you need help finding safety for yourself and your pets, this interactive map from the Animal Welfare Institute provides a list of people shelters that accept pets, as well as guidance and other resources to help victims of domestic abuse.
On a broader scale, U.S. Representatives Katherine Clark (D-MA) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) introduced the PAWS (Pet and Women Safety) Act (HR 909) in the U.S. House, where it has earned the support of more than 235 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle. An identical bill has been introduced in the Senate (S. 322) by Senators Gary Peters (D-MI) and Dean Heller (R-NV) with 28 co-sponsors. The legislation would criminalize intentional targeting of a domestic partner’s pet with the intent to intimidate, harass, injure, or kill the animal. It also establishes a federal grant program to help victims safely house their pets, helps victims recover costs for veterinary care, and firmly emphasizes the necessity of states extending legal protections for pets of domestic violence victims.
More than half of all U.S. states have enacted legislation to legally protect pets of domestic violence victims, but federal legislation will have a broader scope as well as send a definitive message that violence against people or pets cannot be tolerated in a civilized society. There is simply no reason not to pass legislation that provides more resources to protect domestic violence victims and their pets.
Representative Clark hopes to move the PAWS Act out of committee and to a vote in the coming months, and I urge you to support it. In honor of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month as well as the many human and animal victims who deserve our attention, we must commit to protecting the most vulnerable among us. Too many lives are at risk if we don’t.
Matthew Bershadker is President and CEO of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)