A safe haven for pets


My idea to help abused families blossomed into a program that shelters pets while their families get the help they need to escape dangerous situations and rebuild their lives.

Imagine loving a pet so much you're willing to face daily beatings, verbal abuse, or the constant threat of violence. This scenario is all too real for many abused families. Concern for their pets' safety keeps many women and children from leaving violent domestic situations because they anticipate the consequences of leaving their defenseless pets behind.

Pets are often a source of unconditional love for the family, and they can be victims, too. According to a 1997 study published in Society and Animals, 85 percent of women and 63 percent of children in shelters report incidents of pet abuse in their homes. Abusers often neglect, beat, or torture the family pet as an example of what could happen to their human targets, exhibiting the abuser's power and further traumatizing their victims.

Unfortunately, most shelters don't accept animals, which may limit a family's options when they're trying to escape an abusive home. Knowing how important pets are to us when life seems too much, I wanted the abused—especially the children—to start a new life with their animal companions by their side. I also knew many women in my city faced this situation. I worried about these families and wanted to find a way to help. Then I had an idea.

Joanne Light, LVT

A seed is planted

In 1998, I called a local women's shelter with a solution for abused pet owners looking for help. I described my idea over the phone and the shelter staff asked me to come in for a face-to-face conversation. To my surprise, this conversation was actually a meeting with the shelter's board of directors.

The board members told me they had never considered the idea that abusers might use pets as a weapon to keep their families from leaving. I suggested offering a shelter for pets, too. Their response—"Run with it!"—wasn't at all what I had expected. Of course I knew they would like my idea, but I had assumed the shelter would make it happen. So I went to work developing a plan of action.

Making a difference

I started by researching other shelter programs across the country. I heard many horrible tales of abused women and children and the tragedies their beloved pets suffered. One particular incident that stayed with me was the story of a young family with a brutal father. One day he gathered his family in their garage and skinned their pet bunny alive—an example of what would happen if they tried to leave or tell anyone about the horrors happening in their house. Dozens of similar stories increased my determination to make my idea a reality.

Next, I looked for a place to shelter these abused pets. The perfect place was, literally, right in front of my eyes—my own hospital. I asked our practice owner to donate one kennel for a six-week period—the length of time the shelter allowed woman and children to stay while they received counseling and found housing. My doctor agreed without hesitation. I knew it was only one kennel to help one pet and keep one family together, but it was a start.

I quickly realized there would be other needs, including maintaining the health of these sheltered pets. How would we absorb these expenses? Our hospital would donate the housing, exams, and day-to-day care. But what about the other costs?

Since most women leave on the spur of the moment, these pets wouldn't come with medical records. I asked my contacts in the veterinary community for help. Pharmaceutical and laboratory companies responded, donating core vaccinations and a complete blood panel for each sheltered pet. A pet food company donated food for the sheltered pets. It was a start.

When I discussed my plans with shelter staff, we agreed that once women knew about this service, more pets would need our help. I enlisted several other local veterinary practices to donate one kennel, exam, and daily care as well.

We needed to plan for our own safety, too. The sheltered pets would come from volatile situations, and I didn't want team members or doctors at risk. We created policies to protect staff members at the practices sheltering pets. The family of the pet wouldn't know the pet's location. They were only told their pets were at a local practice. The practices wouldn't know the name of the family. Pets would be known by name and assigned a case number by the practice. A caseworker for the shelter transferred pets to practices. And because we understood the bond these families shared with their pets, caseworkers were allowed to pick up pets for visits with their families at local parks.

My idea takes root

Over the next several years, the program provided a safe haven for many pets. We knew we were making a difference when the shelter forwarded us a letter from a woman who wanted to leave with her children on several occasions, but didn't for fear of what would happen to her dog if she did. Because of this program, she was able to leave her abusive situation and start a new life while keeping her best friend safe.

My idea for the program came from personal experience. I grew up in a violent home, where threats kept my mother from leaving—because of what might happen to my mother if he found us and what would happen to our cocker spaniel mix, Molly, if he didn't.

No one should be forced to tolerate abuse. If you or someone you love is in an abusive situation, please call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-SAFE.

Joanne Light, LVT, is the practice manager at Paradise Pet Hospital in Las Vegas. Please send questions or comments to firstline@advanstar.com

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