When it comes to cases of domestic violence, wanting to keep our pets has particularly dangerous implications; it can potentially put both children and adults at risk. (photo from commons.wikimedia.org)
Times are tough. Difficult financial circumstances and/or acts of violence force all kinds of people to seek shelter outside their homes. As if leaving one’s home in the wake of such challenges isn’t bad enough, sometimes this leave-taking involves the very painful question of what to do with the individual or family’s pet.
Many of us can well appreciate the desire to hold on to our animals. When it comes to cases of domestic violence, however, wanting to keep our pets has particularly dangerous implications; it can potentially put both children and adults at risk.
Dr. Frank Ascione provides this eye-opening statistic: “In 12 independent surveys, between 18 percent and 48 percent of battered women have delayed their decision to leave their batterer, or have returned to their batterer, out of fear for the welfare of their pets or livestock.” (Violence Against Women, 13(4), 2007)
Why are these pet owners willing to go to extremes to hold on to their animals? Genevieve Frederick of the U.S. organization Pets of the Homeless elaborates on her nonprofit’s website, “Their pets are nonjudgmental; provide comfort and an emotional bond of loyalty. In some cases, they provide the homeless with protection and keep them warm.”
In addition, Dr. Andrew Gardiner, who helps run free veterinary clinics at two homeless hostels in Edinburgh, Scotland, offers this interesting observation: “… many homeless people say that having a pet is what gives them hope….”
Critically, keeping the family dog or cat is vital to children’s continued emotional stability. In her groundbreaking paper for the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA), Allie Phillips states, “When a child has been abused or traumatized, it can be the nonjudgmental comfort from an animal that helps the child heal…. Children often love their pets like family members and, if a pet is threatened, harmed or killed, this can cause psychological trauma to the children.”
Moreover, Jewish law requires us to be pro-active in cases of domestic abuse as well in situations of cruelty to animals. In a 2007 article entitled “Few are guilty, but all are responsible: The obligations to help survivors of abuse,” Rabbi Mark Dratch (executive vice-president of the Rabbinical Council of America and founder of Jsafe) writes: “… the physical, emotional and spiritual dangers that result from perpetrators of abuse and violence … obligate each of us to protect potential victims from them.” Among the texts he uses to base his conclusions about Jewish responsibilities toward people in domestic violence situations are Leviticus 19:16 and Deuteronomy 22:2 and, in the case of cruelty to animals, Exodus 23:5 and Deuteronomy 22:4.
According to the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse: “Domestic abuse occurs in Jewish families at about the same rate as in the general community – about 15 percent – and the abuse takes place among all branches of Judaism and at all socioeconomic levels. Studies show that abuse occurs in every denomination of Judaism in equal percentages, and we see abuse in all communities including the unaffiliated.”
But the Jewish community in particular, and the community at large, have thus far established few shelters for pet-owning domestic violence victims. In 2014 (during two days of census taking), Vancouver had 1,820 individuals living in emergency or transitional facilities, 957 people living on the streets (homelesshub.ca/community-profiles/british-columbia/vancouver) and 88 children (under the age of 19) in the company of a parent. Of those people living in transition homes, 116 were women and children fleeing violence (vancouver.ca/files/cov/results-of-the-2014-metro-vancouver-homeless-count-july-31-2014.pdf).
Another complication once someone is able to transition back to a more stable living situation is access to affordable, pet-friendly rental accommodations. Vancouver has one of the lowest vacancy rates in Canada. Moreover, in British Columbia, there is no law permitting tenants to have a pet. In fact, the existing Residential Tenancy Act explicitly gives landlords the right to refuse pets, or to charge an extra deposit for accepting pets. Many renters have a hard time finding rental apartments and pet-owning residents have an even harder time locating suitable housing. People are often forced to choose between their pet and a roof over their head.
What then is available to these needy residents and their animals? The Salvation Army’s Centre for Hope in Abbottsford is currently working on becoming pet friendly. Shilo St. Cyr, program supervisor of Sheena’s Place, an Elizabeth Fry Society facility in Vancouver, reports: “We don’t accommodate women and children who have pets. We usually try to arrange for a dog sitter/shelter.”
Jodi Dunlop, Vancouver branch manager of British Columbia’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, reports: “Currently, our branches offer a two-week compassionate board for the animals. This gives the person leaving the violent situation a chance to find accommodation and not have to worry about the care and safety of their pet. In some cases, we have extended the care for the animal. It is dependent on each situation and also the animal’s welfare while in our care. There is no charge for this service. Our goal is to always reunite the animal with their owner.”
No doubt the animals are kept safe in foster care. But individuals and family members must temporarily deal with separation, both from their physical home and from the most cherished parts of that former home life.
Indeed, the flipside of this human attachment is such that dogs and cats of homeless people are also very attached to their owners. Gardiner points out: “The pet and the person spend so much time interacting with each other that the human/animal bond is incredibly strong. If these pets are taken from their owners, it is not uncommon for them to suffer separation anxiety or demonstrate other behavioral problems. In the worst case, a dog that is unable to adjust could end up being put down. That would be a terrible outcome.”
Nationwide, the number of Canadian domestic violence shelters offering pet facilities is still very small. While individual Vancouver cat and dog owners might find shelter for themselves and their pets at either 412 Women’s Emergency Shelter or St. Elizabeth’s-St. James Community Service Society, it appears the family member seeking temporary shelter in Vancouver would do best to contact either the BCSPCA branches in the Vancouver area or, as St. Cyr advises, contacting 211. Additionally, for more non-pet-related inquiries, the Women’s Safety and Outreach Program recently opened a weekday hotline between 5 p.m. and 1 a.m. – it can arrange transportation for women fleeing violence to housing (transition, shelter). As of this writing, the telephone number is 604-652-1010.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.