Same story, different targets.
While Kim Gentle was leaving the house in the morning, her partner of 3 months asked: “Do you mind if I take your dog for a walk? It’s the last time I will get to see her.” She accepted. The night before she had kicked him out. The night before she had realized the lovely man she fell in love with was gone.
Hours later, a phone call made everything worse. “You loved her more than you loved me,” he said. He threw her dog off a cliff and into the ocean.
There are many reasons why women don’t leave an abusive home. They stay because of fear. Because of low self-esteem. Because of their children. Because of economic dependency. Because of family pressure. Because of embarrassment.
They also stay for their pets.
There is an astonishing bond between domestic violence and animal cruelty. These are two forms of violence strongly related that should be dealt with side by side.
A remarkable 40 per cent of Canadian women do not leave an abusive domestic partner because they are under the threat that their family pet will be hurt or killed, according to Barbara Cartwright, CEO of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies..
“Perpetrators of domestic violence use the pet to keep their victim on hold. Victims know what will happen to their animals if they leave, so they don’t,” said Cartwright.
In a domestic violence situation, the abusive partner looks to exercise control over a vulnerable victim by using emotional, physical, and psychological torture. Seventy-five per cent of Canadian homes have a dog or a cat, and almost 50 per cent of the population considers its pets a member of the family.
The National Link Coalition which studies the relationship between animal abuse and human violence defines animal maltreatment as “the tip of the iceberg” and a warning sign of violence inside a home.
Domestic violence and animal cruelty are entwined issues.
The Humane Society of the United States says that 71 per cent of domestic abuse cases involve targeting pets and 88 per cent of families under investigation for child abuse had physical mistreatment of animals in their files.
The problem comes when a woman with a pet is running away from home and looking for a shelter.
According to Cartwright, it is usually housing policy at shelters to not accept pets. Thus, the creation of co-location centres for domestic abuse victims and their pets should be a priority, but a considerable budget would be necessary.
“Threatening to hurt the pet is an intimidation tactic they (abusers) use to keep the woman from leaving,” said Mary Zilney, Chief Executive Officer of Women’s Crisis Services of Waterloo Region. “It is important to conduct an investigation and encourage social workers to consider not only humans in the family, but also the pets, when it comes to dealing with domestic violence.”
Seventy per cent of victims who arrive at shelters report that their pets were hurt already; women facing domestic violence tend to stay in an abusive relationship two years longer if they have pets, according to Zilney.
With almost 40 years of supporting women and children to move beyond violence, the Waterloo charity made the decision to not include pets because financially, it would be “unrealistic”.
“We are not fully funded by the government,” said Zilney. “Our agency needs to fundraise over $500,000 per year just to cover annual operating cost. We decided to go for a partnership instead.”
Zilney’s agency works in partnership with the Humane Society by providing foster homes for pets until the woman is ready to start again and move somewhere safe.
According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, every six days, a woman is killed by her intimate partner and more than 3,000 women are sleeping in shelters every night.
Even in instances where a haven will accept a pet, they “only take your animal for a couple of weeks and a domestic violence recovery situation needs at least six months. This is how weak and antiquated the system we have right now is,” said Cartwright, noting her Federation will host a conference in November 2017 at which the issue will be discussed.
But the initiative of a pet-friendly shelter goes beyond desire. It faces considerable added costs and new challenges with other clients.
“You need to find the capital money to build a kennel, then you have to ensure to have the staff to take care of the animals. If you have three dogs at the same time, you need concrete rules to avoid fights. Besides, not all women like animals and that might defer them to come if they know we have pets,” explains Zilney.
According to the National Link Coalition, hurting an animal exerts dominance over the woman, and is a way to show what could happen if the woman disobeys.
For children, being a witness to animal cruelty in some cases might not only work as an early stage of disorder, but could desensitize them to other forms of violence.
The powerful bond shared by humans and pets doesn’t apply only to families. There is an even stronger connection with homeless people because pets are their only companions.
The reality is that Toronto does not have many pet-friendly shelter options. The following are some of them:
Fred Victor’s Caledonia shelter; Sistering’s 24-Hour Women’s Drop-In (962 Bloor Street West); and Fred Victor’s 24-Hour Women’s Drop-In (67 Adelaide Street East).
Sonia Zyvatkauskas, of Toronto’s Support Housing Administration, states that there are two cold weather drop-ins for people with pets to be accommodated overnight. From December 15, 2016 to February 28, 2017, and during any Extreme Cold Weather Alerts, Margaret’s Toronto East Drop-In at 323 Dundas Street East and St. Felix Centre at 25 Augusta Avenue will be available.
“All new shelters will be required to be pet-friendly. Shelter Support and Housing Administration also hosted an information session on pets with service providers in October with representatives from Toronto Animal Services and Toronto Public Health” said Zyvatkauskas.
She also clarifies that Violence Against Women shelters are a provincial responsibility.
“At the cold weather drop-ins, there were an average of 2.65 pets each night over the 2015-2016 winter season, with a maximum of nine on a single night,” states Zyvatkauskas.
Zilney explains that there are options available to support woman and pet welfare, but it is an “individual choice” if they decide to leave.
“When women come here, many of them have limited resources. With our partnership, the Humane Society pays for the food and the vaccinations for the pet.”
Recognizing the link will help to address measures, Zilney believes, and it will provide tools to prevent violence in other forms.
“We have therapy dogs. We know that touching a pet helps calm people down and allow opportunities to talk about issues they feel uncomfortable at the beginning,” explains Zilney.
Cartwright, whose Ottawa-based advocacy organization represents about half the humane societies and societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals in Canada, also encourages the community to be aware of this violence link.
“We can save children by saving women and save women by saving animals,” expresses Cartwright.
Kim Gentle suffered for over six months during her abusive relationship. She was forced by her partner to quit her job, which was her passion. She was barred from talking to friends and family. She was obliged to walk behind him and look down. She was suffocated on her 31st birthday.
Gentle escaped, and her partner was put in jail for the physical abuse of three women. She found comfort and healing in horse therapy. Now, 14 years later, Gentle leads a horse workshop and works with Indigenous children in Port Hedland. She moved on.