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Pets may deter violence victims from finding safety

A man was furious at his partner for leaving the house to run errands without his permission. Knowing she was 30 minutes away, he called her and said if she did not return home within the next 10 minutes, he would put her beloved cat in the microwave.

The statistics are shocking: 71% percent of women in domestic abuse shelters say that their abuser injured, maimed, threatened, or killed their pets, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. One in three women experience domestic violence in the U.S. Yet, up to 65% of abused women stayed in an abusive home because they didn’t want to leave pets behind, according to the Urban Research Institute.

While approximately 65% of American households have pets, URI says only a handful of urban shelters across the U.S. accommodate domestic violence survivors together with their animals. And only 3% of domestic violence shelters across the country offer co-shelter services to keep both pets and their owners  together and away from the dangers of domestic abuse, according to URI. They call pets “silent victims.”

“Safe havens” are shelter services that assist domestic violence survivors with placing their pets out of harm’s way. The Animal Welfare Institute has a Safe Havens Mapping Project for pets and victims of domestic violence. Emerge Center is among five safe havens in Tucson assisting with pet placement.

As a safe haven, Emerge Center collaborates with a partner facility that meets the needs of pets as survivors navigate toward safety, says the nonprofit’s CEO, Ed Mercurio-Sakwa. “That allows us to stay focused on our expertise of working with people,” while the partner focuses on its expertise in working with animals.

“We encourage people to reach out for help, regardless of the barriers they may face, and pets are one,” he says. “We encourage use of the crisis hotline (795-4266), which can help remove barriers and problem-solve around them. We can help them consider options, whether it is through Emerge or not, for all that is going on in a situation; to creatively problem-solve and identify alternatives they may not have thought of to find a safe way around barriers.”

Mercurio-Sakwa says the pet barrier is a common one. While the center legally must accept documented service and emotional support animals, there are many other pets that provide an emotional support system for a victim — a source of unconditional love and comfort. “Survivors often fear a pet will be harmed, and that direct threat is an abusive tactic. Or they think the pet won’t be fed or cared for. Our goal is to have that barrier removed.”

While Mercurio-Sakwa agrees that the cat in the microwave is an extreme example of abuse, he says plenty of extreme things happen. “More extreme tactics are used other than pets. We should be shocked that these things are happening in the homes of our coworkers, families, and friends all the time. The opposite of shock is complacency — ‘it’s not impacting me directly.’ We are so numb to all the bad things that are happening in the world that important things get lost in the shuffle.

“Isolation is another abuse tactic. As our society responds to a health crisis, there is an increased risk for those whom isolation already is a tactic being used against them. Being forced out of the workplace, school, and social distancing obviously is not good for people dealing with domestic violence. We already are seeing an increase in calls,” Mercurio-Sakwa notes.

For the long-term, the new Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020, passed in January, will provide $2 million in United States Department of Agriculture grants to enable more domestic violence shelters to become pet friendly and provide housing assistance and support services for domestic violence victims with pets. The grants come one year after the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act was authorized as part of the 2019 Farm Bill.

Other Tucson facilities listed in the mapping project that offer safe haven options for pets include: Administration of Resources and Choices/Later Life Domestic Violence Service,  www.arc-az.org; Humane Society of Southern Arizona Safe Haven Animal Foster Care, www.hssaz.org; and Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation, www.saaf.org.

For more information on Emerge Center, go to www.emergecenter.org or call 795-8001.