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"If we can remove the barrier of leaving a pet behind by creating more pet-friendly domestic violence shelters, more lives can be saved," according to the president and CEO of nonprofit group Red Rover.
This past summer, a small dog was abandoned in a restroom at at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, along with a heartbreaking note:
“Hi! I’m Chewy! My owner was in an abusive relationship and couldn’t afford me to get on the flight," read the handwritten note. "She didn’t want to leave me with all her heart but she has NO other option. My ex-boyfriend kicked my dog when we were fighting and he has a big knot on his head. He probably needs a vet. I love Chewy sooo much—please love and take care of him.”
Chewy got lucky. He was taken in by a local animal rescue group, which got him medical care and then found him a home. His story illustrates what advocates for pets and for domestic violence victims say is a dire need for more pet-friendly domestic violence shelters.
"No individual should ever have to make the impossible choice between protecting themselves or their beloved pets," Nathaniel Fields, president and CEO of Urban Resource Institute and Center Against Domestic Violence, told Route Fifty in a recent interview. "Without pet-friendly domestic violence shelters providing a safe haven for victims of abuse and their entire families, many victims are left to grapple with this cruel choice."
‘These Pet-Friendly Units Are Always Full’
Domestic abuse affects animals as well as humans—both because abusers harm pets, and because oftentimes domestic violence victims are reluctant to leave without their pets, for fear of their safety.
A white paper put out in 2015 by Urban Resource Institute—which runs the only three pet-friendly domestic violence shelters in New York City—notes that 30 percent of pet owners who called the organization's emergency shelter hotline said their pets had been threatened. Thirty four percent said their abuser had physically harmed their pet. Three quarters of callers said being able to bring their pets to the shelter influenced their decision to leave.
"These pet-friendly units are always full," Fields said. "There is no question that we need more pet-friendly domestic violence shelters in this country."
Indeed, according to the most recent data collected by the nonprofit Red Rover, of the 1,894 domestic violence shelters in the U.S., only 141 are pet-friendly.
"Clearly we need to expand access so that more survivors and their pets can escape to a safe haven together," said Nicole Forsyth, Red Rover's president and CEO.
The organization gives out "safe escape" grants, to pay for domestic violence victims' pets' temporary boarding. They also provide funding to domestic violence shelters to help them build pet-friendly spaces.
"If we can remove the barrier of leaving a pet behind by creating more pet-friendly domestic violence shelters, more lives can be saved," Forsyth said.
Not an Uncommon Situation
The need for more pet-friendly accommodations applies in other crisis situations as well. This includes for those experiencing homelessness, and families dealing with natural disasters.
"Quite a bit of research indicates that when people can’t take their animals with them, they are likely to delay seeking shelter or not go at all," Maya Gupta, senior director of applied research for the ASPCA, said in an email. "It becomes an issue of safety and well-being for people as well as their pets."
This year's hurricanes showed that the situation has improved for families with pets in natural disasters, since Hurricane Katrina—during which an estimated 100,000 pets were left behind. A 2006 study put out by the Fritz Institute found that an estimated 44 percent of those who chose not to evacuate did so because of pets.
The Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act of 2006—federal legislation passed in the wake of Katrina that encourages state and local governments to make emergency evacuation plans that include pets—is widely seen as contributing to this year's better outcomes. Though there's still room for doing better, according to a recent ASPCA study, which shows the need for vast improvements, still, at the state and local level.
But the situation for homeless people with pets is more bleak. There are even fewer homeless shelters accommodating pets than domestic violence shelters.
"We have a much longer way to go in raising awareness about this topic in the homelessness field than in domestic violence, but we need additional services in both," Gupta said.
There is some hope for change on that front, as well. Philadelphia will soon be getting its first pet-friendly homeless shelter, to great need and acclaim—and Stephanie Sena, who plans to open the shelter before spring, tells Route Fifty she's heard from other homeless activists around the country who want to follow her lead.
Ways State and Local Governments Can Help
Advocates say there is a lot that state and local government executives can do to help. A big one is expanding the amount of affordable pet-friendly housing available generally. For example, this year California lawmakers passed legislation requiring future housing developments financed by California's Department of Housing and Community Development to be pet-friendly.
Urban Resource Institute's Fields would like to see state and local governments pass laws that allow pets to be included in protective orders, and in the legal definitions of stalking, harassment and domestic violence. He also recommends that the Pet and Women Safety Act of 2017— a federal bill that would grant more protections to animal victims of domestic abuse—be looked to as a model for state and local laws.
This is on top of increasing government funding for pet-friendly domestic violence shelters—and for the pet food, veterinary care and other associated expenses.
"State and local government executives must be dedicated to creating policies and funding programs that protect all victims of domestic violence, including animals," Fields said.
For now, there is Community Action Stops Abuse, a domestic violence shelter in St. Petersburg, Florida, which received a grant from Red Rover to help build a kennel for five dogs and three cats.
The kennel is nearing completion, and CASA's John Biesinger tells Route Fifty he expects it will be operating soon—there to ensure that at least in this city, victims of domestic violence will not be forced to choose between their own safety and their pets'. They will not have to leave a beloved animal companion in an airport bathroom, with a note and the hope that someone kind will find them.
"Our 24-hour hotline advocates tell me they have had to turn down many domestic violence victims who will not seek shelter without their pets. That is simply unacceptable for CASA," he said. "The new kennel will be a game changer for us."
Arin Greenwood is a journalist, novelist, and former lawyer based in St. Petersburg, Florida. She was previously animal welfare editor for The Huffington Post. Her third novel, Your Robot Dog Will Die, will be published in 2018.