Nationally, one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, so it should come as no surprise that numerous companion animals are affected by domestic violence as well.
Here are a few facts from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence:
One of the most important things we can do to combat domestic violence is to talk about it and give others the space to do so. I grew up in a family profoundly affected by domestic violence, and one of the worst aspects was the shame involved in having to keep secrets and hide reality — even years afterward.
Late last summer, model and actress Christy Mack, who also is a Pit Bull advocate, was brutally beaten by her ex boyfriend, War Machine, a pro MMA fighter. This attack shocked me, both for the sheer violence involved and also for the intense victim blaming that happened immediately afterward. Because Mack works in the adult film industry, some people thought she deserved it due to her profession. Not only did she suffer physically but emotionally as she was dragged through the gutter. I couldn’t get over the fact that people blamed her for the beating. It was her fault he almost murdered her?
I’ve followed Mack on Twitter and Instagram for a while and have always appreciated her affinity for companion animals. (Her pages often feature her Pit Bulls, snakes, and ferrets. She is clearly an animal lover, and fortunately none of her animals were hurt in the attack.)
But most of all I’ve been impressed with her honesty and willingness to speak out against the violence that she survived. She’s become a heroine to many. Her strength inspires those who value truth, justice, and faith in doing the right thing, even when people question your integrity.
Mack’s profession and income were entirely dependent upon her physical beauty. After her beating, she had to have major reconstructive surgery. She wasn’t able to breathe out of her nose, she had teeth knocked out, and she lost vision in one eye. While her injuries have healed, I can’t imagine the experience of looking into the mirror and having my face look totally different due to a vicious attack by someone who claims to love me. This is not what love is supposed to feel like.
Fortunately, she has money, fame, and a support network. But think about abuse survivors who have none of these things. What do they do? The Animal Welfare Institute has a national resource directory for abuse survivors who are needing to find safety for their pets as well as themselves.
Around the time of Mack’s assault, I was planning to become a volunteer at Seattle Animal Shelter (SAS). During the training, I learned that it has a program that will temporarily house pets of domestic violence survivors. I was ultimately unable to volunteer due to scheduling constraints, but I did use the experience to interview Donald Baxter, manager of Animal Care and Volunteers, to learn more about how one shelter is working to help the pets and people affected by violence.
I asked him how the domestic violence program got started at the shelter.
“This was a joint effort during interdepartmental meetings between Seattle Police Department (SPD) victim support team and SAS, after recognizing a need,” Baxter told me in an email interview. Families have to be referred by a support agency or by a police victim support team. The shelter will hold family pets — not just dogs and cats, but any critters that are legal to have as pets in the city — for 14 days, so people can find appropriate temporary boarding. And of course you can visit your beloved pets, too.
“We ask that a pet owner is able to cover the boarding costs, but that is not a requirement for the program,” Baxter says. The only requirement is that the owner will need to purchase a Seattle pet license when picking up the pets if they live in Seattle.
As noted above, Mack’s pets weren’t harmed in the attack, but I was concerned about how the shelter could keep people’s pets safe. Baxter says there have been no issues so far: “We keep domestic violence safekeeping pets out of public view just for that reason. It is a great program that helps individuals who are dealing with stressful situations in their personal lives by hopefully removing a little of the stress of having to worry about their pets.”
I’m glad to see that programs like this one may play a crucial role in helping domestic violence survivors make the transition to independence from their abusers by providing a safe place for their animals to be boarded in the interim. I believe every community should have a program of this nature.
In observance of the survivors of domestic violence who have had the courage and ability to leave their abusers, I think we should all take some time to reflect upon those who may be less fortunate than ourselves and advocate for programs that assist these people in their path to a healthy, stable life. And that includes resources for their companion animals — and the willingness to listen when someone shares their story.
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About Kezia Willingham: Kezia was raised by a strong single mother who had the courage to leave her abusive marriage to a police officer during the 1970s, before domestic violence was a household term. Kezia credits the experience of not being able to talk about the violence as part of the reason she is a tell-all writer today. A former high school dropout and single mother on welfare, Kezia has bachelor’s and master’s degrees today and works as a Health Coordinator for Head Start. You can find her on Twitter.