It’s a terrible dilemma. You’re in an abusive relationship that you must escape. But your only option is a domestic violence shelter. And you can’t take your beloved pet, the one that has comforted your children during difficult times, or maybe even tried to come between you and your abuser? What if your abuser has harmed your pet and you can’t bear to leave it behind to face more abuse? That’s the reality for more than 70% of pet owners who enter domestic violence shelters. And nearly 50% of all domestic violence victims stay in abusive situations out of fear of what will happen to their pets if they leave them behind.
Fortunately, in New York City at least, things are looking up. Since June of this year, the Urban Resource Institute (URI) in partnership with the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals (the Alliance) has been running a pilot program that enables domestic violence survivors and their pets to reside together in selected city shelters. The program, called PALS—People and Animals Living Safely—allows for today announced the launch of New York City’s first-ever co-sheltering program to enable domestic violence survivors and their pets to reside together in shelter. The project, called PALS—People and Animals Living Safely—accepts cats and small domestic animals for now, but hopes to be able to accept dogs in the future. In the meantime, shelter and hotline staff looks for foster solutions for any pets PALS cannot accommodate.
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Animal rescue and shelter personnel have seen firsthand how victims’ pets suffer at the hands of abusers. “I often respond to pet owners in crisis to help them navigate the difficult choices of what to do with their pets, and cases involving domestic violence are the most challenging,” says Jenny Coffey, LMSW, with the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals. “No one should have to choose between the lives of their family pets and their own safety. We have responded too many times to animals being stabbed, pets’ legs broken, and animals abandoned because there were no other options. This groundbreaking effort will keep families and their pets safe and together,” she adds.
Muriel Raggi knows all too well the torment of having to consider leaving behind a loyal furry or feathered friend. “My dog Jasmine was such a big part of my family and would often place herself in harm’s way while trying to protect me,” Raggi recalls. “I will never forget the day she was kicked so hard that she crashed into the wall. One day, things got very violent and I truly believed I was going to die. Staying with family or friends was not an option, so I knew my daughter and I would have to seek refuge in a shelter. But I couldn’t leave Jasmine there to be the silent victim of his anger.”
Fortunately, Raggi came in contact with the Mayor’s Alliance, which was able to place Jasmine in foster care while Raggi and her daughter stayed at a shelter. But even knowing Jasmine was safe, Raggi remembers the stress and trauma of the period, and says, “at night I would lie awake, wondering if I was strong enough to get through this and whether my family would be ok. It was at those times that I missed Jasmine the most. I wish I had had my puppy to sit beside me and provide comfort and raw affection.”
“There has never been a more important time for the domestic violence shelter community to open its doors to pets,” says URI President Nathaniel Fields. “As we witnessed during Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, pets are members of the family and no one should have to make the impossible decision to leave them behind during times of crisis.”
As part of the initiative, URI has launched an education campaign to raise awareness about pets and domestic violence. One of its key messages is to inform the public that New York is one of 25 states that allows people to place their pets on orders of protection. Hopefully, this new initiative to allow pets to join their families in domestic violence shelters will become a model for the nation.
If you reside in New York City and need help keeping your family and your pets safe in domestic violence situations, visit www.urinyc.org. If you can become a foster family to pets in crisis, visit www.animalalliancenyc.org.