A place
to heal
together

As few as 10 percent of domestic violence
shelters accept pets, despite the proven
bond between many victims and their
animals. One program is looking
to
change that.
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When she escaped her abusive marriage about 10 years ago, Jill's* only choice was sleeping on friends’ couches and lugging shopping bags of her belongings from one place to the next. Her dog, Scarlett, was on the move with her, and more than anything else, Jill wanted to find a home where they'd both feel safe.

With as few as 10 percent of U.S. shelters and transitional housing providers accepting pets, however, Jill struggled to find a place to go. Settling anywhere without Scarlett, who had been by Jill’s side throughout her abusive marriage, was simply not an option.

“I’m not really sure I could have gotten myself out of there if it [had] been solely about me. I did it for her,” Jill said.

Approximatelyevery 9 seconds
1 woman experiences
domestic
violence in the U.S.

Jill isn’t alone in feeling this way. More than half of victims report that, during abusive situations, their pets offered crucial emotional support, and studies show that an overwhelming majority of survivors in domestic violence shelters who have pets share an emotional bond with their animals. That powerful connection can make the already difficult decision to leave an abusive household even harder: up to half of all victims of domestic violence delay leaving their abuser and many shelters don’t even accept pets, making it even more difficult for those who don’t want to leave their pet behind.

One solution to this issue is to increase the amount of pet-friendly domestic violence shelters and services in the U.S., and the Purple Leash Project, an initiative from Purina and the nonprofit RedRover, is helping to make that happen. Purina has committed more than $700,000 to establish Purple Leash Project grants designed to help transform domestic violence shelters into safe places for survivors with their pets. The Purple Leash Project then awards grants to domestic violence shelters across the country to help them make the transition to welcoming pets. Through these efforts, Purina aims to help 25 percent of U.S. domestic violence shelters accept companion animals by the end of 2022—something that survivors like Jill desperately need.

"All shelters [need] to have accommodations for pets, because I wouldn't have left without Scarlett," Jill said. Millions of survivors per year experience the same dilemma that she did, and the same daunting choice of whether to stay and risk further abuse, or move on without the companionship of a beloved pet.

Why survivors and
pets need
each other

Animal abuse is frequently intertwined with domestic violence. An estimated 71 percent of women who enter domestic violence shelters and have pets report their animal being abused, and when survivors depart without their pet, their abuser will often exploit that separation and continue abusing the animal as a form of retaliation or punishment. The experience only adds to the trauma experienced by survivors.

She and Scarlett are safe now, but Jill can still remember “trying to make it through each day without inciting violence and rage.” Seven years’ worth of those days took an intense toll on Scarlett, who’s been “emotionally sensitive” ever since Jill adopted her at 12 weeks old. Even as a puppy, Scarlett would run up to Jill if she sensed that there was something wrong, and she did the same with strangers. But the fear and stress wore on her, and after numerous trips to the vet, she was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease—making her one of the many pets who face physical and emotional side effects when living in domestic violence situations.

Scarlett wasn’t physically harmed by Jill’s abuser, which Jill is grateful for. But many pets in violent households are. In one study, more than half of women in domestic violence shelters reported witnessing the actual harm or death of their pet at the hands of their abuser.

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When Jill reached her breaking point, she decided to leave with Scarlett, even if it meant having to live in her car. Fortunately, they were able to stay with friends and family until an apartment became available at Lydia’s House, a transitional housing facility in Missouri that Jill heard about through a support group for survivors. Lydia’s House wasn’t always able to accept companion animals, but two years ago, their facilities became pet-friendly, thanks to grants from Purina and the Purple Leash Project.

Jill and Scarlett were the first survivor-and-pet duo that moved in after Lydia’s House became fully pet-friendly. She remembers vividly the frustration of that couch-surfing period prior to moving into Lydia’s House, when she was still unable to find a shelter that would keep them together. There was one other option in Missouri, a shelter with an on-site kennel, but Scarlett “would not have been with me, like a family member,” Jill said, so she turned it down—because, to her, healing from her former marriage depended on Scarlett being by her side.

Safe places for survivors and their pets

Certain domestic violence resource centers have already adjusted their spaces and policies to become pet-friendly. The map below includes information on how to find and connect with pet-friendly centers nationwide.

Double-click to zoom into the map.Use two fingers to pan and zoom. Tap for details.

Overcoming
the
barriers
to becoming

pet-friendly

At Lydia’s House, Jill and Scarlett have a place to themselves, an apartment renovated with pets and “pet parents” in mind. Jill feels like she “won the lottery,” and Scarlett has been able to settle into a routine again. The apartment’s ceramic-tile floors are easy to clean, its paint colors are soothing to animals, and its ground-level location allows Scarlett easy access to a fenced area outdoors where she can run freely. Purina provides nutritious pet food, and resident pets receive plenty of toys and comfortable bedding.

“It’s just provided a great comfort level for pet owners to know that everything is available here for them,” said Karen Kirk, president and CEO of Lydia’s House.

Transforming into a pet-friendly facility is expensive—the Purple Leash Project’s average grant is $17,000. On top of that, it can be challenging for shelters and housing providers, according to Nicole Forsyth, president and CEO of RedRover, a Purple Leash Project partner organization with over a decade of experience in such transformations. While "every single shelter in every community has different challenges," Forsyth said, most shelters feel overwhelmed by the prospect of renovating given their limited resources, lack of expertise in animal care, and various practical details, from zoning restrictions to liability issues to working with contractors.

To ease their concerns, RedRover often encourages connections to local veterinarians and animal boarding facilities that can provide shelters with expert guidance in a pinch and over the long term. Additionally, in partnership with the Purple Leash Project, Forsyth and her team help shelters think through how to create pet-friendly spaces in ways that make sense for their specific facilities and services.

"That's a huge part of that design element that we bring in: how do we manage the flow of pets and people?" Said Bryna Donnelly, founder of Rescue Rebuild, a program of the nonprofit GreaterGood.org, and another Purple Leash Project partner that guides shelters through renovating their facilities.

Word about these programs has gotten out among domestic violence housing facilities. More shelters are actively seeking out assistance from the Purple Leash Project, according to Donnelly, as public understanding of the human-animal bond has also deepened. Many of Donnelly’s colleagues have backgrounds in disaster relief, and they realize the importance of the human-animal connection, having seen people clinging to roofs during hurricanes, refusing to be rescued unless their pet was able to come with them.

“It’s taken people so long to realize that that’s the same exact human-animal bond that we see in domestic violence,” Donnelly said.

The power of
bringing pets
and
survivors together

In a shelter setting, the presence of survivors and their pets has the potential to shift the culture for the better, according to Forsyth. Not only do shelters tend to attract new donor support once they begin housing pets, but they’ve also found that all residents are sometimes “more authentic” around animals, making for “a warmer environment,” she said. Research shows that during stressful situations, some people benefit more from their pet's companionship than from a spouse or friend, in part because pets are seen as nonjudgmental sources of support.

Among survivors themselves, the benefits of pet-friendly shelters are abundantly clear. At Lydia’s House, Kirk has “seen people heal from having their pets here, just knowing they didn’t have to leave their lifeline behind.” Simply petting their animal gives survivors a sense of safety, and if survivors have children, it allows those kids “the quiet time that they might not have had in [a] violent home,” Kirk said. When survivors can bring their pets with them, they’re also less likely to go back to their abuser—statistically, a quarter of survivors returned because of concern for their pet—and are more likely to heal, according to Forsyth.

“It’s not solving domestic violence. It’s not solving animal cruelty. But it’s taking down a clear, obvious barrier with a solution that is relatively simple,” Forsyth said.

For Jill, no other solution would have sufficed; nothing could have replaced Scarlett. Being together in a safe setting has given her the necessary time and opportunity to regain her confidence, through support groups and meetings with survivor advocates, and through sharing her story and making friends with other residents of Lydia’s House. Now Jill feels only optimism.

“I am 61 years old, and for the first time in my life, I have a future that I’m excited about,” she said. “I can’t wait to see what happens next.”

*To protect Jill’s privacy, her last name is being withheld.

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