As you might expect from someone with two totally spoiled cats, a frequently visiting donkey, and a flock of godchickens1, I have kind of a thing for animals. Which is to say, I’ve lived around pets and livestock all my life, I love animals, and few things in this world actually cause me to totally melt down in the way that animal abuse does.
Can’t handle it. I can react coolly and analytically to a lot of things, but send me a story about...actually, I can’t come up with an example because then I won’t be able to write this article because I will be under the table crying...but let’s just say something bad happening to an animal, and I’m a total mess.
It's my kryptonite. I think animal cruelty is one of the shittiest things a human being can engage in, and I am all for maximum penalties for animal cruelty.
Call me a softie. I don’t care. You don’t fuck with animals, people, you just don’t. That doesn’t mean I don’t care passionately about human rights and get infuriated with the things humans do to each other (I think we all know I do), but my visceral reaction to animal abuse predates pretty much any and all political awareness I ever had. All I saw as a kid was animals suffering and people not helping them.
And the thing is, people who abuse animals aren’t just bad people because they abuse animals. A lot of them? Are also on track to abuse humans. It’s really common to see animal abuse preceding serial killing and other horrific criminal behaviors, and animal abuse is also extremely commonly associated with domestic abuse.
Some people who abuse animals are just abusive, and will abuse women just as much as they hurt animals. Because it’s fun, or pleasurable, or they get off on it, or whatever is going on there that I really don't like to think about because it makes me want to curl up and die.
Others know that animal abuse, or the threat of animal abuse, can be used as a tool to force women to stay in abusive relationships.
Unfortunately, domestic violence shelters have historically lagged behind on this issue. Many lacked accommodations for animals and couldn’t coordinate with animal charities to get animals and people out safely, so women chose to stay in dangerous situations to protect their pets, even if it meant endangering themselves and their children. Other shelters didn’t even think to ask about whether animal abuse was a factor in the relationship.
In 1997, a study looked at 50 shelters across the US and found that “85% of women and 63% of children reported incidents of pet abuse.” Yet, among shelters that had noticed a connection between animal and human violence, only 27% asked about pet abuse in intake interviews. The thing about studying animal abuse and domestic violence is that it’s really hard to do when first-line responders can’t or aren’t collecting data on it.
But that didn’t stop first-line responders concerned with the health and safety of both women and animals. A movement started percolating across the country to get animals to safety so women could flee. Organizations like Ahimsa House work to end one part of the cycle of domestic violence by connecting women with animal-friendly resources, and they actually maintain a list of animal safe havens across the US, which is a fantastic tool.
At the same time that list is great, it also testifies to the fact that if you are in an abusive relationship where your pet is being harmed or is being threatened with harm, you have very few options. Which is why it’s super exciting to read that New York City just got its first(!) domestic violence shelter that provides housing for pets, too.
Right now, the Urban Resource Institute is just handling small pets in some residences, but they’re planning on expanding their offerings. Critically, they’re thinking ahead with plans like dog runs so women can safely exercise their dogs without going out into public areas.
Given that there were 720 incidents of domestic violence reported to police per day in 2012 (which means many more incidents went without official attention), with 69 “family-related homicides,” expanding the scope of shelter services is a Big Deal.
It means that women faced with horrible situations will have more support and more options when it comes to getting out, and that they won’t need to leave loved ones behind. As many of us who have animals in our lives know, our animals can be our anchors and our rocks, there for us when it seems like everything is going wrong and no one else is willing to step up.
The thought of having to abandon my pets to seek safety is wrenching, and makes me go convulsively hug a cat just because I can, and because I don’t think anyone in a domestic violence situation should ever be forced to make that choice. It’s a terrible decision to make.
We hear “Why didn’t she just leave” a lot in reference to horrible things that happen to women trapped in abusive relationships, and sometimes that reason is furry and has four legs. Maybe you think that’s petty, that no woman should risk her life to save an animal, but I know that if I was in the situation, I might well make the same choice.
Seeing the movement to include pet services in with human services is an indicator to me that shelters are starting to expand, more and more, what domestic violence services look like and what needs to be available for women to feel safe leaving. I’m hoping we see more and more pet-friendly shelters and auxiliary services like programs that provide fostering and sheltering for pets while women get on their feet.
Domestic violence shelters still have a long way to go when it comes to meeting the needs of all women -- many continue to exclude trans women, and don't provide adequate support for disabled women -- but things are getting better. And that's a good thing.
Today, I’m glad that pets in New York City just got a little bit safer, and so did the women who love them.
Looking for ways to help domestic violence victims? Here are some tips on reporting/intervening and supporting. Need help? The National Domestic Violence Hotline is here for you: 1−800−799−SAFE(7233) or TTY 1−800−787−3224.
1. This is not a reference to their diety-like status, but rather to the fact that I take care of them on the regular. And then eat their ova. Return