PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — Her boyfriend became abusive about six months after they met. He would drink himself into a stupor and tear the house apart while screaming and insulting her, once even threatening to snap her neck. She worried for herself, but also for her beloved golden retriever, Cody, whom she had rescued from an abusive former owner.
“The biggest argument I had with him in the beginning was saying, ‘Do not raise your voice in front of the dog. Don’t scream and yell in front of her. Don’t throw things around her,’ ” recalled K., a steely 44-year-old who spent two decades in the military. “ ‘These things traumatize her.’ ”
The end came in February, when the boyfriend threw K. against a wall. The woman, whose name is being withheld to protect her, called the authorities and fled with Cody. The pair ended up staying at a friend’s, but it wasn’t a good situation. That’s when K. went online and happened upon a very rare place: a domestic violence shelter that allows pets.
Both K. and Cody have been bunking for three months at Community Action Stops Abuse, or CASA, a 100-bed shelter that can also accommodate up to four dogs and four cats. Outside a separate kennel building is a fenced, grassy area where Cody and her owner can play without fear.
Not long ago, they wouldn’t have had the option. CASA opened its kennel in early March, joining the small ranks of domestic violence shelters nationwide that accommodate pets. These shelters have emerged out of a growing awareness that pets are often used as pawns by abusers to maintain control over victims.
A widening body of research in the past two decades has found that abusers often threaten, injure and even kill victims’ animals, and surveys of women at shelters have found that about 20 percent to 50 percent say concerns about a pet’s fate delayed their decision to flee. These situations are particularly dire when victims are deeply attached to their pets, said Frank Ascione, a University of Denver psychologist who has published numerous studies on the topic.
Particularly in households with no children, Ascione said, “the pet or companion animal may be the only source of safe, affectionate contact that a woman has in her environment.”
More shelters these days ask questions about pets as part of their intake procedure, he said, and a shelter directory published by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence now includes information about facilities’ pet policies. Yet while more than 100 in the United States allow animals, they’re still a small minority — amounting to as little as 3 percent of shelters, according to advocates.
CASA’s kennel was inspired by a former resident whose abuser killed her pet after she fled and left the animal in his care, said interim CEO Lariana Forsythe, who called that situation, “unfortunately, a very common occurrence.”
But becoming pet-friendly isn’t an easy decision, she acknowledged. Many elements must be considered: Who will clean the pet area? Will animals require food or veterinary care? What if other residents have allergies? And what about liability insurance?
“It gets complicated,” Forsythe said. “I think a lot of shelters recognize the problem, but the investment is a difficult one to make.”
Shelters use various models to assist with pets. Some do not house animals but partner with local veterinary clinics or animal shelters that agree to put up the critters temporarily. Some work with foster families that will take in victims’ pets. Some have a storage closet set aside for crated animals; others let pets stay in rooms with residents.
Construction is underway in New York City for the nation’s first shelter custom-built for victims and pets. Run by the nonprofit Urban Resource Institute and scheduled to open this fall, it will have 30 pet-friendly apartments in a building that can house about 100 people. Based on guidance from pet behaviorists from Purina, a partner in the project, it will feature pastel colors said to be soothing to animals, flooring with enough traction for feet with claws and elevated surfaces such as high bookshelves for cats to climb.
Outside will be a fenced, parklike “pet haven” — important because victims, having fled abusers who might try to track them down, need a secure place to get their dogs some exercise, said Kurt Venator, Purina’s chief veterinary officer.
“The concept of taking them for a walk on the city street is just not an option,” he said.
The Urban Resource Institute has accepted pets in four of its domestic violence shelters since 2013 — dogs and cats, plus a few turtles and one bearded dragon — but this will be its first “intentional” space created with victims and animals in mind, said President and CEO Nathaniel Fields. It reflects providers’ increasing realization that they must focus on reducing the hurdles that victims face when leaving an abuser.
“We recognized that, when you look at the percentage of households that have pets and the still-stubborn realities of domestic violence, that our work was to reduce the obstacles,” he said. “Let’s not put a survivor in an impossible situation of choosing between their own safety and … the safety of their pets.”
Proposed legislation in Congress, the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act, would provide grant funding for programs and shelters to assist domestic violence victims who have pets. One sponsor of the House version, Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.), said she was spurred to introduce it after hearing the stories of victims in her state, including one whose abuser decapitated her dog and another whose abuser shut a pet “in a drawer until the abuser felt that the victim had been appropriately apologetic.”
The bipartisan measure, which the Senate Agriculture Committee included this week in the Farm Bill, should be an easy win, Clark said. But it has been passed over in previous sessions.
“Pets don’t care about our politics,” Clark said in an interview. “This is a good way to really reach across party lines and ideologies and do a bill that is indisputably good for animals but is really about helping people in dire situations.”
K. isn’t sure what she would have done had she not found CASA, because she made a vow to Cody on the day they met that she would never leave the dog. That was several years ago, as K. was driving and saw a man on the side of the road hitting and kicking an overweight golden retriever.
K. recalls hopping out of her truck to confront the man — and to matter-of-factly inform him that the dog would be coming with her. He argued; she threatened to call the sheriff and report what she had witnessed. The dog seemed to agree with K’s plan.
“I just opened the door to my truck, she came over to me, licked my hand and jumped in,” K. said. “From Day One, as crazy as this sounds, it’s like I knew I would do anything to protect her.”
Cody, who is about 10, is now a protector, too. K. said she has post-traumatic stress and depression, which prompted her mental-health provider to write a letter testifying that Cody is not just her pet, but her emotional-support animal. That means the dog — CASA’s only nonhuman resident — gets to stay inside the shelter with K.
She hopes more shelters will let other victims stick with their pets.
“Going through a situation like this is traumatic enough,” K. said. “It’s the same way for [pets], and I really think separating them from their owners, I don’t think that does any good for them, either …. Once we’re gone, who’s left to abuse but the animals? The animals can’t fight back — the animals can’t pick up the phone and call the police.”
Brulliard reported from Washington. Duncan Strauss is a longtime journalist and host of WMNF Tampa’s weekly radio program “Talking Animals.”