OTI Online
Fall 1997

Animals Escaping Domestic Violence
by Patricia A. Murphy


Abusive men frequently use pets to manipulate women's emotions, beating, shooting, disemboweling, strangling or drowning an animal if the woman tries to leave. These abusers make women watch...


Just six weeks into their marriage, Tamara Barnes's husband began drinking heavily, shouting at her for no reason and abusing her cats. He broke one cat's leg and burned its paws. One day he wrapped up one of the cats with duct tape.

"He was taped up like a football," Barnes says. "I was completely freaked out. I told him I was going to call the police. He said, 'Go ahead and call them. I'll kill this cat if I want to, and I can kill you, too.' "

After her husband struck her, Barnes sought help at Womenspace, a women's shelter in Eugene, Oregon, where she lives. "I found there was no community network to help me care for my pets," she says. "I was constantly worried about them, knowing my abuser would not hesitate to hurt them to hurt me." As a result, Barnes stayed in her abusive situation much longer than was safe for her or her pets. "No matter how afraid I was," she says, "I would not leave them behind. Giving them up was more than I could accept."

When a woman is ready to leave a batterer, she's pretty much on her own in finding a place to shelter her pet. But Barnes's experience was the catalyst for an innovative program that does just that. Last year the city of Eugene, along with Spokane and Boston, received a three-year cooperative agreement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The three cities will evaluate a coordinated community response to what they call intimate partner violence. Lessons learned from the projects will be used to replicate similar programs across the country.

"I thought this was a perfect opportunity to see if emergency pet care could be made part of the model," says Barnes, who works for the Sacred Heart Foundation, one of the organizations that receives grant money. She contacted Kimball Lewis, the executive director of the Greenhill Humane Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in Eugene. Six months later, in February 1997, the Domestic Violence Assistance Program (DVAP) began. The DVAP supplies -- at no charge -- foster homes or "safe houses" for the pets of abused women, until the victims can accommodate their pets' safety.

Within five months, Greenhill has helped more than 20 women and their pets. One woman, escaping an abuser in California, fled to Eugene with her children and three horses, and found out about Greenhill's program from a local health clinic. Unlike other humane societies offering foster homes, Greenhill offers unlimited care for all animals.

"If we have a woman whose daughter or son has a steer as a 4-H project," says Lewis, "we'll find a home for it." (Lewis estimates the program costs Greenhill about $10,000 a year, yet the shelter itself gets no money from the CDC grant.)

Programs such as this can change the ending to what women's advocates and police say is an all to familiar story. Abusive men frequently use pets to manipulate women's emotions, beating, shooting, disemboweling, strangling or drowning an animal if the woman tries to leave. These abusers make women watch as they kill the animal, sometimes even forcing them to have sex with a pet, saying, in effect, "This is what I can do, and there is nothing you can do to stop me. You may be next."

Joan Quaempts, community educator at Womenspace, notes that a pet could be the only source of emotional support or unconditional love a battered woman gets. "It's very traumatic to lose that," she says.

Although there's a great deal of anecdotal evidence linking animal abuse and the abuse of women, little scientific documentation exists. In one study conducted at a Utah women's shelter, however, 71 percent of the women with pets reported that their male partner had threatened to hurt or kill one or more of their pets; actual harm or killing was reported by 57 percent. Angela Browne, author of When Battered Women Kill, interviewed a number of women who had killed their husbands in self-defense. Many reported that their mates had killed family pets. "To the women, these incidents often seemed to represent their own death," observed Browne.

Eugene, Oregon, is not the only municipality attempting to shelter the pets of battered women, though such programs are still rare. The Department of Animal Care and Control in Loudoun County, Virginia, provides temporary shelter for ten days; women are unable to visit the animals for reasons of confidentiality. Besides providing pet shelters, Colorado Springs is one of the first jurisdictions in the country to include animal enforcers in domestic-violence situations. The Domestic Violence Enhance Team ( DVERT ) begun in May 1996 by the police department, may involve up to 15 agencies. "In the past," says Donna Straub of the Humane Society of the Pike's Peak Region, "there could be 20 investigations in the animal-welfare agency and 20 investigations in the social-services files. But they wouldn't share information. Now they do, so the judges see every bit of information," says Straub, which impresses upon judges the seriousness of domestic violence. Straub is also working on a manual for veterinarians to play a role in reporting abuse.

This pooling of resources can be especially valuable in light of growing evidence of the link between animal abuse and child abuse. For example, one study involved 57 families being treated for incidents of child abuse by New Jersey's Division of Youth and Family Services. Researchers found that in 88 percent of these families, animals in the home had also been abused by the parent. A British study by the Royal SPCA found that of 23 families in an English community with a history of animal abuse, 83 percent had been identified by social-service agencies as having children at risk of abuse or neglect.

Other studies indicate that many criminals who have been violent toward people share a common history of brutal parental punishment and cruelty to animals. (For instance, Jeffrey Dahmer, who was imprisoned for mutilating and killing 17 men, impaled the skulls of small animals in his yard when he was a boy.)

The trial of Peggy Sue Brown -- acquitted of murdering her husband, Bradley Brown -- provides one example of the confluence of spouse battering, child abuse and cruelty to animals. She testified that he had beaten their children; he had also beaten and raped her and locked her in a closet without food or water for days. The level of terror he instilled was illustrated by another incident she described during the trial: Her husband hung a pet rabbit in the garage, then summoned her. When she walked in with the baby on her shoulder, he began skinning the rabbit alive. He held the boy next to the screaming animal, saying, "See how easy it would be?"

Animal abuse can portend violence against humans, and may be an indicator of a family in trouble as well. As Barnes says, "Animal abuse is domestic violence."


PATRICIA A. MURPHY writes frequently on health and environmental issues.


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