Several years ago, I found myself in an unthinkable situation: I needed to leave my husband. Not “wanted” to, but needed to. After years of abuse at his hands, I had to get out. As I went through the life-shattering steps to remove myself and my children from the situation, I came to the upsetting realization that there wasn’t a place for our three pets where we were going.
The shelter didn’t allow pets, and I had no family to take them in temporarily. Knowing that my then-husband had already murdered one dog, leaving them behind was not an option.
As I scrambled to find homes for them all, I eventually had to put two of my pets with a family friend in what I believed would be a short-term rehoming, but while I was trying to fix my life, he gave them away, and I never was able to get them back.
When all was said and done, I had escaped with my life, but not with my pets.
This situation is one that is unfortunately all too common in the U.S.: Victims having to weigh their safety against the safety of their pets. Thankfully, those same women in Southern California have an alternative to having to make that choice.
When these women move into a shelter, their pets can move into one as well.
When domestic abuse shelters and animal protection agencies began realizing that they were working with the same abusive perpetrators, the issue known as “the link between animal abuse and human violence” came into awareness. Later, when the San Diego Family Justice Center — the first resource center of its kind in the nation, where victims can get referrals for a variety of services available to not only them, but also for their pets — started cross-reporting domestic violence incidents with animal abuse cases, it brought to light just how big the problem of women staying in abusive relationships to protect their animals really was.
Due to a lack of services to care for these animals, women were routinely setting aside concerns for their own safety in an effort to protect pets from their abusers. Rather than risk the life of their pet by leaving them with their abuser when they moved into a domestic abuse shelter, they risked their own lives and stayed for their pets.
When the Rancho Coastal Humane Society started receiving calls from domestic violence shelters in San Diego looking for a place to house animals while they sheltered their owners, RCHS stepped up in a big way and offered to take the pets in so the women could flee to safety.
The humane society didn’t just offer to house a few pets, they went further and created the Animal Safehouse Program. The program first opened its doors to victims in 1997, and it now serves San Diego, Los Angeles, and Riverside counties.
“The first year we housed three animals,” Program Director Amy Heflin says. “When word spread that RCHS offered free boarding for the animal victims of domestic violence, the program began growing by leaps and bounds.”
Today, ASP functions as a domestic violence shelter support service. While regularly housing 150 animals a year, they also help roughly 100 domestic violence victims per month in other ways.
“ASP is often the first contact they make,” says Heflin. “They need to know there is a safe place for their ‘furry children’ before considering their own safety. After assuring them of that, we become a referral service for their needs.”
From instructing domestic violence victims on how to include their pets in an order of protection to driving dogs to the airport and securing the proper certification needed to allow them to fly to another state, ASP’s dedication to its clients goes above and beyond just providing a home for a client’s pets.
Sometimes their services extend beyond the housing of cats and dogs to some of the word’s smaller animals, as Heflin explains.
“We once fostered a hamster named Chewy for a little girl and her mother. The hamster was overly important to the six year old. Her mother explained at intake that the little girl had lost her cat and its kittens when the abuser threw them over the third-story balcony. We kept Chewy for six months. The mother and daughter moved out of San Diego, and they didn’t have a car. Since you cannot transport a hamster on the train or trolley, I drove Chewy to their new home. I barely had the car stopped when the little girl came bursting out the door. I’ll never forget the look on her face when she and Chewy were reunited.”
ASP’s original mission of housing animals while women are in shelters has extended to include taking in pets of veterans in need of temporary care and of elderly citizens who are in a short-term assisted living facility dealing with an emergent medical issue.
When pets enter into ASP’s program, they are placed with foster families who have been trained through the RCHS Volunteer Program. Whether it’s simply housing a pet to blowing the budget on heart surgery for a Chihuahua named Harvey, each animal in the ASP’s care is well taken care of.
Today the ASP is thriving. As the only program of its kind between Los Angeles and the Mexican border, it has an 85 percent success rate in reuniting pets with their owners. The 15 percent or so pets who aren’t able to be reunited are taken into RCHS’s care and adopted out to permanent homes.
“Sometimes owners realize that the best chance they have is to move into long-term transitional housing, and they simply can’t take their pets back. They cared enough to find them a safe place to stay, so we will find them a forever home; there is no judgment here” says the ASP. Funded by private donations, grants, and several yearly events, their clients can rest assured that their pets are well taken care of while they tend to serious life events.
As one client best sums it up in a letter to the ASP: “I will forever be grateful to this facility and the care that was given to my dog, Bill. Thank you for loving and caring for him while I couldn’t.”
I think about my pets often, wondering where they ended up and hoping it was in a better place, and while I am thankful that I escaped with my life, I wish I would have had a program like this available to me so I could have also escaped with my pets.
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About the author: Eden Strong is a quirky young woman with a love for most animals with fur. Read her blog, It Is Not My Shame to Bear.