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Living in fear: The violence link

June 14, 2016

Anne Taylor recalls, as a child, the constant fear and anxiety of living in a household with a physically abusive father. She remembers trying desperately to shield their family pets – particularly, a beloved Labrador retriever – from his violence and threats. Often, the dog was trying to protect her, her siblings and her mother from her father’s abuse.

Dog looking sad giving puppy dog eyes while being held and hugged by a girl indoors

“You don’t know what goes on behind closed doors – abusers rarely look like the monsters they are,” says Taylor, executive director of Haven Society on Vancouver Island. “There’s a huge link between domestic violence and cruelty to animals. If you can be violent or aggressive with a human being, it’s not that big a leap to expect you might be the same towards animals.”

Research conducted across North America shows that there is a clear link between animal abuse and other forms of family violence, also known as the Violence Link: the connection between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence.

Inspired by her personal experience, Taylor started her career as a social worker before becoming executive director of Haven Society, an anti-violence organization based in Nanaimo that offers 24/7 shelter, counselling and a long list of services to women and children who are fleeing abusive relationships.

“My mother never did get out (of the abusive relationship),” Taylor says. “I think I knew, very early – at least, I believed, that there was a better way to live.”

Abusers will often use animals against the humans in their life, Taylor notes, something she experienced first-hand and that is backed up by research. A 2012 study commissioned by the Alberta SPCA shows that 59 per cent of women delayed leaving an abusive relationship out of concern for their pets or farm animals, and that more than a third of respondents cited their animals were subject to threats or actual harm by the abuser. Eighty-five per cent of abusers who threatened to harm animals carried out those threats, and of respondents who had animals who had actually been threatened or harmed, more than 74 per cent delayed leaving the relationship.

“I can remember, at times, actually trying to protect my dog, who was trying to protect us,” Taylor says. “It’s a huge intimidation factor, a manipulation tool – he might say something like, ‘I’ll give that dog something to be concerned about,’” Taylor says. “It wasn’t unusual for the dog to be kicked or locked in a room, especially when she’d try to jump in and get in the way if he was threatening my mom or us kids.”

Women, with or without children, face numerous emotional, financial and logistical barriers to safely leaving an abusive situation, Taylor says.

“A lot of times women don’t know or can’t find what services are out there – a huge factor is that there’s no place for pets in the places that offer the services they need,” she notes.

That’s why Haven Transition House in Nanaimo and the Nanaimo SPCA have a long-standing partnership that allows Haven Society clients to board their pets with the BC SPCA as they go through tough life transitions, such as leaving a violent, abusive relationship to start a brand-new life.

Leon Davis, manager of the Nanaimo BC SPCA Branch, says the compassionate boarding partnership is a natural one that also allows the women and children who are seeking help to come and visit their beloved animals during a stressful time.

“The statistics say that women tend to stay in abusive relationships seven times longer because they fear for their animals or have no place to go with their pets,” Davis says. “That’s seven times too long.”

The women aren’t charged for the compassionate boarding of their animals, and while the initial stay is usually two weeks, it will often stretch to a longer period of time. And that’s fine, Davis says.

“People in that position need to be able to feel safe, to focus on their recovery and their family’s health, and they can’t do that when they’re worried about their animal,” he says. “They need to know they’re not as alone as they feel, and that there is help and support and light at the end of the tunnel.”

Last year, Kim Sirett, a Vancouver Island resident who runs a dog hiking/adventure business, raised more than $3,000 for Haven Society by doing the near-impossible: She got 40 dogs to pose on a log, all at one time, for a photo, taken by photographer Shawnna Taylor.

Sirett wanted to support her local community, and knows it can be difficult for people to leave abusive situations, so she chose Haven transition House as the beneficiary of the fundraiser.

“Women need to know that there are options out there, so they don’t feel they have to stay in a dangerous place,” Sirett says. “I wanted to raise awareness about violence against women, but also, about the services that are available to them.”

In 2015, BC SPCA branches across the province offered compassionate boarding to 302 animals.

Ivanna Ferris, manager of the Chilliwack BC SPCA Branch, says offering compassionate board for the pets of people going through such a difficult time fills an obvious need.

“A lot of times, we hear that people have been living out of their cars or worse because there’s no pet-friendly place for them anywhere,” she says. “We just want people leaving a violent or dangerous situation to be able to focus on their safety and recovery, knowing their pets are being taken care of.”

Often, the BC SPCA’s cruelty investigation constables, always on the front lines of animal abuse, are the first to see the signs of the violence link.

BC SPCA Senior Animal Protection Officer Tina Heary recalls such a case: “When I attended, it was clear that the household was a volatile environment,” Heary says. “The woman had been assaulted by her live-in boyfriend… I will always remember the recent bite marks on her arms, as they actually showed teeth marks with the bruising.” She also remembers seeing startling signs of child neglect and abuse, and the RCMP and the Ministry of Children and Family Development were alerted, as they often are in such cases.

“Our team routinely works with other agencies as we cross-report to police, MCFD, fire departments, animal control, mental health and addiction workers, among others,” Heary says. “We also help arrange compassionate board for the pets of those in abusive situations, so they can flee without having to worry about leaving their pets with the person who is abusing them.”

The BC SPCA’s chief executive officer, Craig Daniell, experienced similar situations firsthand, when he was director of investigations for the Ontario SPCA from 1999-2002.

“One of the most profound statements I’d ever heard that stays with me to this day was a comment from a woman attempting to leave an abusive relationship,” Daniell says. “She said, ‘My husband threatened to chop my cat’s head off if I left, so there was no way could I leave.’”

Studies and research also show that access to pet-friendly services for people trying to leave abusive situations is either lacking or not well-known, and that shouldn’t be, Daniell says.

“The BC SPCA offers compassionate board wherever we can, if there’s space – we will support wherever, whenever we can,” he says. “It’s a service we should provide. If we don’t have the space, we will help as much as we’re able to ensure the animals are safe.”

He remembers experiencing three specific types of violence when conducting animal cruelty investigations: child abuse, elder abuse and domestic (spouse/partner) abuse.

“It’s pretty shocking how you see all three of these things when you’re investigating the potential abuse of animals,” he says.  “I think what is most important is that the abuse is reported. Call the BC SPCA’s  Call Centre (1-855-622-7722), or call 9-1-1 if you suspect abuse is happening at any level.”

For the marginalized and sometimes, ‘forgotten’ members of society, it can be even harder to leave an abusive situation and to get care for a beloved furry family member, says BC SPCA manager of animal welfare Kim Monteith, who dedicates much of her free time to helping low-income pet guardians of Vancouver’s Downtown East Side.

Many of those who come to Charlie’s Food Bank, a once-a-week service for DTES pet guardians, tell Monteith their horror stories, but are often distrustful of any agencies or authority.

“Often, they’re battling demons like addiction or mental illness, and that can make it harder to get them access to the services they need,”  she says.

One of the most important things Monteith and Daniell highlight is how critical it is for the woman, or the victim of any abusive relationship, to obtain proof of ownership of any pet, and keep it – or copies – with them.

“Sometimes, in these cases, the animal gets used as a pawn, or even a tool for an abuser to regain control,” Daniell notes. “It is extremely important to make sure you have information on the animals – if he’s licenced, get it done in your name. If there are vet records of vaccinations, spay/neuter surgery or other, get them done in your name.”

Anything that can help document proof of ownership can help ensure the animal won’t have to go back to an abusive environment, he says.

“Help is there,” he says to anyone considering leaving an abusive situation. “The more people are aware of the support that is available, hopefully, the more they’ll gain the courage to leave violent relationships.”

Check out the BC SPCA’s online resources on the Violence Link.

The British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is a not-for-profit organization reliant on public donations. Our mission is to protect and enhance the quality of life for domestic, farm and wild animals in B.C.

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