New Bill Would Help Domestic Violence Survivors Find Shelter for Their Pets Too

Less than 5 percent of domestic violence shelters nationwide house pets. But a real need exists for more: Survivors often delay leaving abusive situations because they fear their companion animal would be harmed or killed.

Less than 5 percent of domestic violence shelters nationwide house pets. But a real need exists for more: Survivors often delay leaving abusive situations because they fear their companion animal would be harmed or killed. Annamarya Scaccia

On a cold Thursday morning in February 2014, Jasmin Rivera barely had a moment’s peace before her partner barged into the bedroom of their apartment in Bronx, New York. The couple needed to talk, her partner demanded.

“I’m like, ‘Oh God, please,'” Rivera told Rewire during a visit to the Urban Resource Institute’s (URI) Safe Haven domestic violence shelter in New York City, where she’s lived since last April. “I was so tired. It was the end of the week.”

Her former partner had verbally, mentally, and emotionally abused Rivera, a cultural studies professor at Hostos Community College, since they started dating in the 1990s. But the abuse intensified during the last few months of their relationship, after Rivera’s partner began an affair with another woman. And that Thursday morning, what started as a verbal fight escalated to physical violence when Rivera refused to argue back. That assault, says Rivera, seemed to be the the worst of what she’d gone through so far. Although Rivera had left to stay with her mother many times prior, on that day, she says, she knew she needed to leave for good.

As she packed her things through the tears and shaken nerves, Rivera wondered about her two Shih Tzus, Tony and Teresa, for whom she had cared since they were six-month-old pups.

“I looked down and I see them, and they’re shaking,” Rivera told Rewire. “At that moment, I said, ‘Oh my God, I’m putting my dogs through this.’”

Rivera had realized a week earlier, during a different argument, that her then partner could potentially harm her two dogs. Seeing them tremble in fear that day compelled her to leave more quickly, she says, and to take them with her to find safe housing.

A federal bill reintroduced in March by Reps. Katherine Clark (D-MA) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) would help make more pet-friendly domestic violence shelters a possibility for people like Rivera, who fear that their dogs, cats, or other animals will be harmed by their abusive partners.

HR 1258, known as the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act, would create a grant program to help agencies working with survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking to develop housing programs that accommodate survivors and their pets.

As of now, there are scant resources around the country for individuals whose pets have made attempts to find alternate shelter more complicated. For example, Safe Haven, where Rivera lives, is New York City’s first and and only domestic violence shelter accommodating survivors with pets.

Last March, URI partnered with pet care company Purina to open a dog park: a gated playground discreetly located in an alleyway on Safe Haven’s premises to give survivors and their dogs a chance to exercise without exposing them to fear of violence. The dog park is an expansion of URI’s People and Animals Living Safely (PALS) program, which launched in June 2013 as a pilot initiative welcoming cats and small animals to Safe Haven, one of URI’s four shelters in the city. Based on animal and family advocate Allie Phillips’s Sheltering Animals & Families Together model, URIPALS expanded in January 2014 to provide housing to dogs, with a limit of three pets per family. There are now ten pet-friendly units in the 32-unit emergency shelter, where survivors stay for an average of six months—although some survivors, such as Rivera, have stayed longer.

“Doors were not open for [survivors with pets], so we wanted to be the first to open doors,” Jennifer White-Reid, URI’s vice president of domestic violence programs, told Rewire.

In this respect, Safe Haven is unique, and not just in New York City: Less than 5 percent of domestic violence shelters nationwide house pets, according to John Goodwin, director of Animal Cruelty Policy at the Humane Society of the United States. But a real need exists for more: Research by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) shows between 18 and 48 percent of survivors delay vacating abusive situations because they fear their pet would be in danger if left behind.

It’s a justified worry, as pets are often targets of abuse—the ASPCA also reported that, in one study, 71 percent of women in domestic violence shelters said their abuser had threatened, harmed, or killed their companion animal. And about one-fourth of survivors who leave abusive situations return to the relationship out of concern for their pet’s safety, said Goodwin.

“[Animal cruelty] is another way for an abuser to inflict harm, whether it’s physical harm or emotional harm,” Goodwin told Rewire.

Both White-Reid and Nat Fields, URI’s president and CEO, told Rewire stories of survivors who reported abusers threatening to slap pets or tie them up and put them in a microwave.

“Often, the perpetrator would attack the pet in an opportunity to have more control over [the survivor],” Fields told Rewire.

That’s what Rivera feared would happen to Tony and Teresa, as her partner became increasingly abusive with her “from week to week, from day to day,” as she put it. A week before she moved out, Rivera’s ex-partner had picked up 4-year-old Teresa and mocked Rivera, referring to her in Spanish as a “whore” to the tiny Shih Tzu.

In addition, the long exposure to violence had caused Tony and Teresa to become withdrawn and wayward. Teresa stopped eating and Tony would urinate all over her mother’s apartment, where Rivera stayed before a counselor at the Bronx County Family Court Help Center told her about URIPALS.

And Rivera herself was in terrible shape. After being brutally assaulted again by her partner the night of the fight—resulting in a broken ankle that would require her to wear a cast for four months—Rivera became depressed and despondent. She continued to work, but lived in fear that her ex-partner would stalk Rivera on campus or harass her in the street.

Rivera fell behind on grooming and bathing her dogs, she says, and wasn’t as playful with them. “I lost my routines with them,” Rivera told Rewire. “I was a mess. It was really bad.”

Rivera’s move into URIPALS has helped redevelop those routines. Teresa began eating again, gaining back the weight she had lost, and Tony, now 5 years old, calmed down, using the wee-wee pads indoors like Rivera had trained him. The three even developed a stronger emotional bond, Rivera said, because of the services and tranquility offered by the shelter. During Rewire’s visit with Rivera, the two dogs were active and energetic, but rarely left Rivera’s side—often guarding her at her feet.

“I didn’t know what to expect because I hadn’t been in a shelter before,” Rivera told Rewire. “The minute I got into the [Safe Haven] living room, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is a blessing.’”

At Safe Haven, URIPALS places survivors in fully furnished apartments that are equipped with crates, beds, blankets, and toys for animals. The agency also gives pets food, behavioral therapy, and veterinary care, including emergency services and routine checkups—some of which are funded and provided by the ASCPA, which has given URI $150,000 in grant money since 2014. If passed, the PAWS Act would give URI the financial resources to continue those services unabated at Safe Haven, as well as the capital necessary to expand URIPALS to its other shelter sites.

The grants, which would be funded through money already allotted in the federal budget, would also go toward training and support services at URIPALS and elsewhere. All this would increase the safe housing available to domestic violence survivors in New York City and around the country.

“PAWS will allow for resources to be allocated to providers to be able to develop the model” of accommodating survivors and their pets in shelters, whether it’s through co-sheltering or building a separate structure for pet living, Fields told Rewire. “Training? Real cost. Providing food? Real cost. Bringing in therapy? Real cost. And right now, [the] government doesn’t support that.”

“A lot of people minimize the importance of the relationship between animals and humans,” White-Reid told Rewire. “These kinds of programs are life-saving programs.”

Jasmin Rivera, Rivera, Jasmin,
Jasmin Rivera holds her 5-year-old Shih Tzu, Tony, while her 4-year-old Shih Tzu, Teresa, watches from behind her.

In addition to granting shelters more financial resources—the bill’s sponsors suggest $3 million in total funding—the PAWS Act would also allow for the Violence Against Women Act to be amended to include pet protective orders at the federal level. That means, said Goodwin, if a survivor has a restraining order that includes her pet, that protection will apply even if they move to a state that doesn’t recognize such orders, which prohibit abusers from being near pets even when a survivor isn’t around.

“And that’s very valuable,” because animals nationwide would be protected from potential abuse, Goodwin told Rewire.

Last year, Ohio became the latest state to enact legislation that allows for domestic violence protection orders to include pets. Twenty-seven others—including Rep. Clark’s home state of Massachusetts—have similar pet protective orders laws, as do Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico.

This groundswell of state-level laws is a relatively new development, says Dr. Randall Lockwood, senior vice president for Forensic Sciences and Anti-Cruelty Projects at the ASPCA. “It’s been less than a decade that we’ve seen [protection for pets] recognized in legislation,” he said. In fact, New York and Maine were among the first states to pass such bills in 2006. “It probably won’t be that much longer before we see the potential for that kind of action in every state.”

Lockwood said the rise in pet protective order legislation has been “a very positive change” since he published the book Cruelty to Animals and Interpersonal Violence in 1997—one of the earliest works on the link between domestic violence and animal cruelty.

The PAWS Act, a first-of-its-kind federal bill that died in committee when it was introduced in Congress last year, has more than 50 co-sponsors, and was referred to the House Subcommittee on Livestock and Foreign Agriculture and Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations, respectively, late last month.

While there is no organized opposition against the act, Lockwood anticipates resistance toward the bill from members of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee. Some politicians, he said, still fear that any bill involving animal protection “is somehow antithetical to agriculture,” given the frequent legislative clashes between the two camps. In recent years, for example, more and more state lawmakers have introduced anti-whistleblower—or, as some advocates call them, “ag gag”—laws that would make it illegal to film or photograph factory farms in order to expose food safety and animal cruelty concerns. In 2013, the committee voted in favor of a House Farm Bill amendment that the ASPCA warned would weaken state animal cruelty laws by prohibiting states from passing their own laws governing “agricultural products”—which include livestock.

And in March of this year, Oregon Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling that animals can be considered victims under a state statute used to convict a farmer found guilty in 2010 of second-degree animal neglect.

With this history in mind, extra effort may be needed to convince lawmakers the PAWS Act is not about animals’ rights in the traditional activism sense, but about “human and pet protection,” Lockwood said. This bill, Lockwood stressed, “has nothing to do with livestock, nothing to do with factory farming. This is about protecting people and animals from acts of violence.”

For Rivera, the benefits of the PAWS Act for survivors are unmistakable, based on both her own experiences and her loved ones’. Her sister, for example, delayed leaving her abusive ex-husband because she didn’t have access to a pet-friendly shelter for herself and her elderly dog, Gigi.

Rivera’s sister’s husband hospitalized Rivera’s sister the last time she tried to flee. Although her sister was discharged into a shelter, it would not accept her dog or her teenage son, who was considered too old to house.

Her son was able to stay with a friend; Gigi had to stay with the abusive ex, who threatened to kill the dog if Rivera’s sister left him, Rivera says.

“I remember feeling really bad that she couldn’t have her dog, because I understood what that’s like,” Rivera told Rewire. “You feel powerless.”

Rivera’s sister was able to reunite with her dog after finding an apartment a town over from where her abusive ex-husband lived. She then moved to New York City to stay with family at the same time Rivera moved into Safe Haven last year. Rivera said she’s “blessed” to have URIPALS, and only wishes her sister had had access to a similar support system.

That’s why it’s important the PAWS Act passes Congress, as it would give other survivors the lifeline they need to escape abuse, says Rivera, as well as drawing public attention to their situations.

“[The PAWS Act] raises awareness and it raises opportunities for people to get away from a vicious cycle,” Rivera told Rewire.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect the number of states that have enacted pet protection laws.