What to Know
- There are less than 3,000 domestic violence shelters throughout the nation, 3 percent are considered pet-friendly shelters.
- As many as 48 percent of domestic violence victims stay in abusive situations because they don’t want to leave their pet behind
- PALS was the first domestic violence shelter program in NYC to extend services to pets
For Melissa* the abuse started with mind games and controlling behavior.
It seemed as though her partner was a puppeteer in the relationship, she said, controlling what she did and who she spent time with. Eventually, it escalated to physical violence which was often done in front of their two young children. Her partner was even hurting their beloved family dog, she said.
In June 2018, the situation reached a crisis point. One morning, she decided to bundle up her two children and the dog and leave. “I don’t know what prompted it, I just couldn't take it anymore so I just packed up my things. I made arrangements with a friend to watch my dog.”
However in many domestic violence situations such as Melissa's, having pets can often make it much harder to leave. Especially when the abuser is using the pet as a means for control. A New York City-based initiative, PALS, a co-living program that provides victims with the option of bringing their pets into the shelter, is pushing to change that.
“It was a complicating factor," Melissa said. "At the time, I didn’t have a relationship with my family. I didn’t have any resources where I can leave my dog. I also couldn’t leave her behind because I knew he had hurt her in the past and my dog has serious mobility and hip issues.
"I honestly believe that his abuse contributed to some of her physical issues. I was definitely concerned if I left he would either completely neglect her … or outright abuse her until she died."
PETS DELAY ESCAPE
According to Jennifer White-Reid, vice president of Domestic Violence Residential and Legal Program at Urban Resource Institute (URI), it's very common for victims to delay leaving an abusive relationship due to their love for a pet. “As many as 48 percent of domestic violence victims stay in abusive situations because they don’t want to leave their pet behind," she said.
There are less than 3,000 domestic violence shelters throughout the nation, and only three percent are considered pet-friendly shelters. So when you have a pet, your options when leaving an abuser are slimmer, family and matrimonial attorney Rhonda Panken explained.
“Battered women may delay leaving an unsafe situation out of concern for their pets’ safety. They don’t want to leave their pets behind and there are few pet-friendly shelter options. Batterers may try and take possession of a cherished pet through the legal system, or threaten to claim or claim that the pet was stolen."
Panken said pets can also become a direct target of an abuser. “Research shows a link between animal abuse and domestic violence. Batterers injure, maim, kill or threaten pets to control victims and their children.”
A URI study backed this up, finding that more than 70 percent of domestic violence victims with pets report having those pets either threatened, harmed or killed by their abusers. As Melissa tried to escape her abuser, she found that having a pet was making her situation much harder.
“Unfortunately the first shelter I went to, he found me," she recalled. "By the time I was moving to the second shelter I realized it was going to be a longer situation that I had anticipated and that my friend couldn’t be a long term resource for my dog. When she said she couldn’t watch her [the dog] anymore, I panicked.”
A SOLUTION FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY
Desperately searching for solutions, Melissa found a social worker online who heard her problem and referred her to PALS URI. The program immediately put her on a list of residency, and later assisted her with the shelter transfer.
“The program didn’t only give me a place to stay with my pet. They also paid for her care and gave a temporary place for her until I could bring her with me completely.”
PALS -- which stands for People and Animals Living Safely -- was started in 2013 and was the first co-living program to welcome pets in the city. Since then, it has expanded to include 172 pet-friendly apartments across seven different domestic violence shelters in three boroughs and continues to work to spread awareness about its cause.
Earlier this month, URI held an event with elected officials in the Bronx to talk about ongoing efforts to increase resources for survivors like Melissa and their whole families -- including pets.
To date, the organization has sheltered 481 people, including 301 kids, and 251 pets, including at least 70 dogs, 89 cats, turtles, birds, guinea pigs and even a bearded dragon. This year alone, the PALS program has admitted 68 survivors, 127 children and 92 pets.
*Victim's name has been changed to protect her safety
WHERE VICTIMS OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE CAN GET HELP
If you need help escaping domestic abuse or are a family in need of shelter call:
NYC’s 24-hour Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-621-4673
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-787-3224
NYC Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project: 212-714-1141
New York City Information: 311
In the event of an emergency: 911
To contact PALS, go here.
To view a map of safe havens for pets of domestic violence victims, click here.