Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Domestic Animals healing Domestic Abuse

When Rose Terry finally resolved to leave her abusive boyfriend, she knew she'd have to live in a shelter for a few weeks before she could start life anew. She had no reservations about that.

But she anguished over Byron, the cat who had seen her through the awful times. None of her friends could take the female feline (the family was first told she was male, hence the name), and she couldn't bear the thought of placing her in an animal shelter until she got back on her feet. "I was desperate, weeping," Terry says. "She's my family."

When Terry learned one Las Vegas domestic violence safe haven, Shade Tree Shelter, had just built a pet-boarding facility on its grounds for residents' animals, "I was in such relief." Terry packed up her suitcase and her cat just before Christmas and checked in. "It's just so good to get to visit with Byron every day," says Terry, 55, who has a new job and nearly enough savings to lease an apartment and start over. "It helped so much that I didn't have to worry about her."

Domestic abuse shelters have long recognized that abused families, often kept so isolated that pets are their only friends, won't leave the abuser because they know animals left behind may be harmed as a power play or retaliation. So shelters have worked with animal-welfare groups that provide temporary pet care to ensure that everyone gets out of the situation.

Today, the emerging alternative is for domestic abuse shelters to provide on-site pet boarding. So far, fewer than a half-dozen such shelters exist, says Allie Phillips, director of public policy for the non-profit American Humane Association. But the numbers are certain to increase, as efforts are afoot on two fronts.

American Humane has just compiled and distributed a how-to guide, and Phillips' goal is that by year's end, at least 15 shelters will offer or will soon offer on-site pet boarding. Doorways for Women and Families Safehouse in Arlington, Va., will be the first to use American Humane's Pets and Women's Shelters (PAWS) Program start-up guide — officials there are in final planning to provide pet housing later this year — but Phillips has been contacted by others seeking advice.

"Shelters are overworked and underfunded, and the last thing they feel they can do is add more to their plates, even though they might be inclined toward having on-site pet care. My goal was to simplify everything, answer all the questions, debunk all the myths and walk them through the process, from how to raise money to fund it … to how to keep the people and animals safe," says Phillips, a former prosecuting attorney who was presented with hundreds of domestic violence cases and spent nearly a year putting together the guide.

Having a blueprint that reduces to minutes or hours the animal-care planning discussions that heretofore would probably have taken weeks "removes a lot of the obstacles" that have prevented many shelters from launching such a program, Phillips says.

'Enormous' need for service, comfort

Concurrent efforts are in the offing from Staci Columbo, a Las Vegas marketing executive who launched Noah's Animal House, the pet facility at Shade Tree. She's developing her own guide "to take to other communities" this year. Her goal: "at least six across the country in five years." The need, she says, "is enormous."

Noah's, which accommodates up to 15 cats and 18 dogs, has drawn so many pet-owning families since its opening in October that it is full most of the time. Expansion plans already are being discussed.

Some abuse victims are satisfied with placing their pets temporarily in an animal shelter. But there are downsides: Sometimes the shelter is full, and some animals don't adapt well to that environment. And often, the already-stressed families are further troubled by their pets' absence, and they're not allowed to visit the animal for fear the abuser might track them there, putting people and animals at risk.

"When a person is in the midst of nothing familiar, the comfort a pet can provide is enormous," Phillips says.

"We had the experience with several women who would arrive with a garbage bag full of possessions and a pet in tow and refuse to check in when they learned that we would find a safe place for the animal, but it couldn't stay here with them," Columbo says. "We've known of women who lived in their cars so they could keep their pets with them and women who stayed in a shelter but kept their pet in the car parked on the street, and, of course, women who wouldn't leave their abuser because of concern for the safety of their animals. Each situation like this tore your heart out."

Benefits vs. concerns

Still, many say there are good reasons for not housing pets in domestic violence shelters — concerns about allergies, noise and bites; debates about whether pets on the grounds may put everyone at risk by attracting the spurned partner; and worries that a pet's presence may prevent a victim from focusing on addressing her own issues.

Marci Sanders, director of the Shelter for Abused Women & Children in Naples, Fla., says her staff had to consider all those questions when contemplating providing on-site care for residents' pets. But they moved ahead five years ago, "and the benefits so outweigh the negatives," she says. It costs less than $1,000 a year to care for about 100 pets annually in crates in an out-of-the-way room. And although "we've had a dog that dug holes in the yard, and one that barked for a while," she says, "in the big picture that is nothing."

Phillips hopes that within 10 years, "these kinds of arrangements will be commonplace." She placed a petition seeking support of on-site pet facilities at domestic abuse shelters online Feb. 23 at; it has attracted more than 18,000 comments.

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