New Mexico's Pet ResourceSUMMER/FALL 2001



by Nancy Marano

"My boyfriend gave me a black kitten for Christmas because he knew I loved animals," Cindy says. "As the cat and I bonded, he became more abusive. He'd say, 'You love that cat more than you love me.'

"One day I called from work to tell him I was going out with some co-workers and would be late getting home. He was furious. 'If you don't come straight home from work, I'll take the cat and nail it to the door.' I came straight home and I never asked to go out after work again.

"He used the cat as a weapon to control me. I was terrified of what he'd do to my cat. If I complained, he'd laugh and say, 'Oh, you know I'd never do that.' Except I didn't know that. He only needed threats to keep me in line, because I never knew what he might do.

"One day I managed to stuff the cat into my backpack and get it out of the house. I left it at a friend's home where I knew it would be safe. Even though I went back to my boyfriend that time, he'd lost his control weapon."

Cindy finally left her abuser. There were no programs available to house her cat while she freed herself from her abusive boyfriend and found another place to live.

Now Cindy works as a domestic violence counselor. "Almost all of the women who need battered women's shelters the most have virtually no resources," she says. "They have no money. Their relatives usually aren't in a position to take in animals, either, because they may be evicted if they do. I've seen women who won't come into the women's shelter because they have nowhere to leave their animals."

Cindy became involved with Community of Care and the Dane County Humane Society's Sheltering Animals of Abuse Victims (SAAV) program in Madison, Wisconsin, because of both her personal and professional interest in the problem. Community of Care started in 1996 as a coalition of police officers, family service workers, church representatives, animal welfare workers and domestic violence counselors.

"These agencies take the animal piece of the abuse cycle quite seriously because it's a red flag for abuse of children and spouses as well," said Kristine Beck of the Dane County Humane Society. SAAV began because of a social worker's concern at witnessing some young children killing baby ducks by smashing them on a sidewalk.

"What's important to me is that our program provides women, their children and their pets a new safe life. Animal abuse is frequently embedded in abuse toward people. If we addressed these things as a cluster, we'd get a lot further."

Jigsaw Puzzle of Pain

Domestic violence is like a jigsaw puzzle. Until recently, each piece of the puzzle was treated separately. Police officers answered domestic violence calls. Domestic abuse counselors saw abused women and children. Child protective services monitored child abuse, and animal control officers investigated animal abuse. Few people looked at these disparate pieces and realized that they all belonged to the same puzzle.

An abuser uses physical, psychological or sexual abuse, or a combination of these things, to gain power and control over the members of his household. One frequently overlooked form of abuse is the torture, maiming or killing of companion animals. It devastates the family, as well as sending a strong message to them. "Today it's the cat. Tomorrow it might be you."

Batterers are expert manipulators. They play on a woman's feelings as easily as wind creates waves on the ocean. Manipulation often includes threats or "accidental" harm to the animal. This is a way of telling the woman that if she had been there to take care of the animal (and the abuser), the animal wouldn't have been hurt. Harming a woman's companion animal keeps her under the abuser's control. If he kills the animal, he may be apologetic and bring home another animal to replace it. The abuse cycle starts all over again.

Kim Roberts, First Strike Campaign manager for the Humane Society of the United States, says this: "Domestic violence is about power and control. Batterers perpetuate the myth that they batter because they are out of control. They don't want to discuss animal cruelty as part of the battering because it completely shatters that myth. It is done for the specific purpose of controlling the women. These acts are very methodical, very planned."

A hallmark of domestic violence is a woman's isolation from her family and friends. Her companion animal may be the only source of unconditional love in her life. It isn't surprising that she might endanger her own life to protect the animal. "Often the animals in abusive situations are the person's heartlink," said Kate Rindy, Executive Director of the Santa Fe Animal Shelter and Humane Society. "A woman may not seek help until her companion animal is harmed. It acts as a trigger for her."

Children abused in this cycle of violence often harm animals. "Abuse doesn't just go away. It has to be released somewhere. Children are trapped in their home setting, and the only place they feel they have any control is with an animal," Rindy said.

A 1997 study done jointly by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Northeastern University evaluated cruelty to animals in Massachusetts between 1975 and 1996. It found that 97 percent of suspected animal abusers were male. A woman trapped in a violent situation may take out her frustration and anger on her children or companion animals, but she is more likely to neglect an animal than to abuse it. Neglect includes such things as forgetting to feed an animal or not getting it proper medical treatment. This still harms an animal, but the motivation is different - it's linked to frustration and feelings of helplessness, not control.

The Abuse Link

"We have to understand what living in violence means. Animals are easy targets. They are totally at the mercy of their family, and society does not see animal cruelty as a very serious issue," Roberts said.

Rindy agrees. "It's important to recognize that any animal is vulnerable [to abuse], but cats and dogs are domesticated. They're dependent on us. Animals become total victims. They pay the price for everyone's suffering."

Most of the evidence linking human abuse to animal abuse comes from anecdotal accounts. But some studies have already been done on this problem, and more are planned. In a study of families reported for child abuse in New Jersey, it was found that in 88 percent of these families at least one person had abused animals as well. Studies by Ascione and Quinlisk reported 74 percent of women in several shelters in Wisconsin and Utah said that their abuser had threatened, injured, or killed a companion animal. Similar studies by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Great Britain found that 83 percent of families with a history of animal abuse had also been identified as being at risk for child abuse or neglect.

Ascione's study of women in a Utah safehouse found that 20 percent of the women delayed leaving an abusive situation because they feared what would happen to their pet if they did. This has been substantiated by a Canadian study that shows 50 percent of the women surveyed also delayed leaving for the same reason. Frank R. Asicone, PhD., professor of psychology at Utah State University, is co-editor of Cruelty to Animals and Interpersonal Violence: Readings in Research and Application and Child Abuse, Domestic Violence and Animal Abuse: Linking the Circles of Compassion for Prevention and Intervention. Jane Anne Quinlisk is executive director of the Domestic Violence Intervention Project and of the Coan Foundation.

Current statistics show the United State pet population at over 126 million, with 58 percent of households owning pets. When these figures are combined with the percentage of animals abused in domestic violence situations, the numbers are staggering.

Such studies have led to a new awareness of the link between animal abuse and domestic violence, and have spurred increased cooperation among animal welfare, domestic violence, child protective and law enforcement agencies. Battered women's shelters can't house companion animals because of health regulations. To alleviate the problem and allow more women to leave abusive relationships, 40 to 50 animal shelters in the United States now have formal programs to provide a safe, loving environment for the companion animals of domestic violence victims, with more programs starting every month. Other shelters provide assistance on an informal, as-needed basis.

One of the first groups to understand this unmet need was Feminists for Animal Rights, Inc. The organization began Companion Animal Rescue Effort (CARE) in 1993 using small networks of people to foster the animals. Now based in Tucson, AZ, the group works through the Tucson Humane Society. CARE is currently developing a national database of foster care programs for companion animals, and plans to act as a data-gathering agency and national clearinghouse for this information.

"It's difficult to get statistics on how many animals go through these programs in a year because the concept [of animal fostering] is new and there haven't been enough studies. We hope to remedy that," said Julie Urbanik, National CARE coordinator.

Love on a Leash

Tami (not her real name) became a victim on February 7th, when her boyfriend beat her so savagely that doctors didn't expect her to live through the night.

"I lived in an apartment building with my cat and dog. Harry (not his real name) lived in the same building. We'd dated for a short time. That night he accused me of stealing his truck keys. I told him I hadn't and turned my back on him. He went crazy - choking me so hard I had handprints on my throat," Tami remembers. "Somehow I managed to get out of the apartment with my dog. I didn't see my cat, but I hoped he'd gone under the bed for safety. I crawled downstairs to a neighbor and called the police.

"While I waited outside for the police to arrive, Harry came after me. He caved my head in with his fists, kicked me, and burned me with cigarettes.

A friend who saw the attack said I looked like a fish out of water, just flopping around on the sidewalk. As traumatized as my dog was, he never left me. He stood guard while the paramedics worked on me."

The possibility of giving up her animals was one of the most emotionally difficult aspects of Tami's ordeal. "My animals are like children to me," she says. I'd lost my home, my job, my health and now my pets."

One of the neighbors in her building took in her cat. Tami knew the cat would have a good life with this friend, so she relinquished it. But she couldn't face losing her dog, too.

"A friend took my dog to her home. But her boyfriend abused the dog by locking him in the garage with no food or water. Then he took the dog's collar off and turned him loose in the neighborhood. We eventually found him, but he was just a bag of bones.

"I panicked. I spent the whole next day on the phone trying to find somewhere for my dog to stay until he could be with me. I don't know how many calls I made. Finally, my district attorney advocate told me about the Rancho Coastal Humane Society's Animal Safehouse program."

Janet Winikoff, former humane education coordinator at Rancho Coastal Humane Society in San Diego, CA, started the Safehouse Program in 1997. "I did presentations for domestic violence counselors on the link between animal cruelty and human violence," Winikoff says. "They were interested, but told me many women wouldn't come to a shelter because they wouldn't leave their animals. They asked us [at Rancho Coastal] to help solve that problem.

"We started the Safehouse program. Once an animal is brought to the shelter, the client signs an agreement not to call or visit the shelter or tell anyone where the animal is. All further contact is handled through the client's domestic violence counselor. We give clients regular updates on their animals. Most, but not all, of the animals are placed with foster families," she continues. "Some animals are too injured or ill, and those need constant care from the shelter's staff."

Foster families are carefully selected and trained about what to expect from animals that have been traumatized or abused in their home environments. Beth and Spence Pickett, who fostered five dogs, were one of the first families to foster animals. "This is a great program and a great service to the community," Beth Pickett says. "I hate to think of any woman staying in an abusive situation because she's worried about her animal. If there were more programs like this, it might save a lot of women and animals."

In 1998, the Animal Safehouse program took in 15 to 20 animals. Winikoff says increased advertising has helped more domestic violence counselors learn about the program, and the number of calls is increasing.

Usually animals are kept for 30 days, but they may stay longer if circumstances warrant it. Tami's dog was in the program for more than two months, and Tami stayed in regular contact with Rancho Coastal so that they knew what her situation was.

May 29th was an important day. Tami and her dog were reunited.

"He was so happy to see me he just went crazy, jumping around and barking. I was crying, the shelter staff was crying, and my dog was making sounds no one had ever heard before. He's a huge part of my emotional healing," Tami says. "I can never thank Rancho Coastal or his foster family enough. They saved his life and mine."

Programs such as SAAV and Animal Safehouse are making a tremendous difference in the lives of people lucky enough to find them. These programs, and others like them, are on the cutting edge of the movement toward greater awareness of the link between animal and human abuse and more cooperation among service agencies.


New Mexico currently has two formal programs to help shelter the animals of domestic violence victims. Animal Humane Association of New Mexico runs one program and Animal Protection of New Mexico developed the CARE program.

Animal Humane Association (AHA)
AHA has operated their program since 1999, in association with the Women's Community Association, a shelter for women leaving abusive relationships.

AHA will house an animal up to two months unless special arrangements are made with the client. Only selected people know the animals are on the premises. The animals aren't listed on the shelter's computer program, and a strict confidentiality policy is observed. These animals are housed separately from the rest of the shelter population in a quieter location with less traffic. Owners are allowed to visit their animals, and about 40% of the owners do visit at least once. AHA stays in contact with the client through the women's shelter counselors. Foster homes aren't used unless it's absolutely necessary and then, only with the owner's consent.

38 animals were cared for in this program during 2000 and seven animals so far this year. Owners reclaimed all but two or three animals. If an animal is not reclaimed for whatever reason, it is put up for adoption. Domestic violence usually increases during the holiday season from October to December, which is when the majority of animals are brought to AHA.

"Our bottom line is always what's best for the animal," said Tracy Ploor, AHA operations manager. "We believe this is a very positive program and a way of helping the community. We ask the community to help us all the time and this is a way we can give something back."

Animal Protection of New Mexico (APNM)
CARE is designed to provide temporary or permanent refuge and protection for animals at risk of abuse or neglect due to violence in their home. The program's goal is to reduce the potential for continued abuse of both animals and people by providing temporary safety for animals until the caretaker can resume responsibility. The CARE program works in collaboration with domestic violence shelters, animal protection agencies, and other social service programs.

Animals at risk are housed at boarding kennels, veterinary hospitals, victims' shelters, or pre-approved foster homes. They may receive free or low-cost veterinary care and vaccines as necessary. CARE participants may reclaim their animals when it is demonstrated that they will be safe or they may opt to transfer custody to APNM at any time.

If victims are seeking help through a domestic violence shelter, they should inform the staff that there are animals in the home that are in danger and in need of help. Shelter staff will contact APNM to coordinate removal of the animals from the home. Victims will be asked to fill out a questionnaire about their animals' behavior and needs, and they will be asked to sign a foster care agreement.

Participants will be permitted to visit the animal in the foster home when doing so would not jeopardize the safety of the foster caretaker, the victim, or the animal. Because of the deep bond and interdependence between people and their companion animals, all reasonable attempts are made to encourage and allow visitation.

For further information on either of these programs contact AHA at 505.255.5523 or CARE at 505.954.4799.

Statistics of Abuse

  • Over 57% of American households include companion animals.
  • In homes with school age children 75% have companion animals.
  • 1997 - Study by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty and Northeastern University. Findings: 70% of animal abusers had committed at least one other criminal offense and 40% of animal abusers committed crimes against people.
  • 1997 - Survey of the 50 largest battered women's shelters in the United States. Findings: 85.4% of women and 63% of children told of pet abuse in the family.
  • 1995 - Surveys of Utah battered women's shelters. Findings: 20% of the women reported they delayed leaving an abusive relationship because they feared what the abuser would do to their companion animals.

What You Can Do
  • Take abuse seriously
  • Recognize animal abuse. Abuse is… depriving an animal of food, water, shelter, socialization, veterinary care, maliciously torturing, maiming, mutilating or killing an animal
  • Report animal abuse to your local humane agency or the police
  • Support strong laws against animal cruelty
  • Promote humane education in the schools
  • Help form a community coalition of human service agencies
  • Help your animal welfare or humane society start a program to shelter animals of domestic violence victims

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