Domestic violence affects everyone living in the home with an abuser, including companion animals. Unfortunately, many shelters do not have the means to house companion animals and many survivors are left facing the difficult decision to either leave their pets behind or remain in the abusive environment.
Sadly, many survivors stay in abusive homes for fear of subjecting their animals to continued abuse, if left behind. Wilbur’s story is one example.
Two years ago in the middle of a snowstorm the Alberta SPCA’s Pet Safekeeping Program received a call from a local elder abuse prevention service. They were calling on behalf of a 71-year-old woman that had been assaulted by her common law partner.
We are calling her Carol – not her real name – to protect her identity. She was in the hospital getting treatment for a broken arm and cuts while the abuser was being held in police custody. The social worker calling on behalf of Carol was frantically trying to figure out where to place Carol’s companion animals. The social worker shared that the abuser was likely going to be released from police custody within 48 hours and Carol was worried for the safety of her animals as he had harmed them in the past. She shared that Carol was planning to live in her car with her animals when she released from the hospital rather than go to a shelter because she would not leave her animals behind.
Working with the social worker and Carol, the Pet Safekeeping Coordinator drove two hours in a snowstorm to bring one rabbit, two dogs, and one cat into the Pet Safekeeping Program. In case management meetings over the next month, it was discovered that Carol had been in an abusive relationship for over 25 years. In those 25 years her common law partner had physically and emotionally abused her on a regular basis. He had also forced Carol to witness cruelty to her pets as a way to exert power and control over her. Carol also confided that over the years she had lost many animals because he gave them away or they “got lost.”
After finishing her stay at an emergency shelter, Carol relocated to a city 400 km away (for safety reasons) and was unable to take all of her animals with her. As an act of love she surrendered her rabbit and cat to the Pet Safekeeping Program where they were transferred to an adoption partner.
Wilbur was that rabbit.
He was adopted by a loving family and thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Pet Safekeeping Program and a local elder abuse prevention service he will live out his life in a home filled with love.
Carol’s story is not unique.
A 2012 report by the Alberta SPCA found that 59% of domestic violence survivors reported they had delayed fleeing their abusive situation due to concern for their pets. In that same report, one in three victims reported their abuser either threatened or harmed their animals. In cases that involved children, 85% of victims reported their children witnessed the threats or harm to the animals.
The Alberta SPCA’s Pet Safekeeping Program was launched in 2014 to help find placement for pets while domestic violence victims entered into a safe shelter. Since its inception, the Pet Safekeeping Program has seen exponential growth, with the number of people and pets helped each year increasing by more than 400%. Clients are referred to the Program by a partner agency, and once accepted, the pets receive a full medical exam, vaccinations and other required treatments.
While there are different forms of abuse that occur in a broad range of relationships, a common occurrence in all of these abusive relationships is cruelty to animals at the hands of the abuser.
Refuge should be available to everyone. Anyone fleeing family violence with a pet should contact a local shelter or domestic violence agency to be referred to the Pet Safekeeping Program.