April 20, 2016
Out of the Darkness
The HSUS works to pass PAWS Act to help victims of domestic violence and their pets
Story by Ruthanne Johnson / Illustration by Aleks Sennwald
When Alongi fled the Congo in 1999, during one of Africa’s bloodiest modern wars, she hoped for a better life. Just two days after arriving in the U.S., she met an engaging young man. The two married soon after and started a family. Life was good, she says.
But during her second pregnancy, her husband changed. “It was small things at first,” she remembers, “like not helping me turn in bed at night or getting me a glass of water when I was very pregnant.” Then came the name-calling and punching, always in places where bruises wouldn’t show to others, and the terrifying nights when he rolled on top of her, uninvited.
For more than a decade, Alongi (who requested we change her name and withold her location for this story) endured the beatings and humiliation. A lack of resources prevented her from leaving. She also feared losing custody of her four children. “I was just so scared, I couldn’t move,” she says. The only rays of sunshine were her kids and a skinny calico cat they’d brought home one day. “She is so spoiled,” Alongi says. “Every little 20 cents you give to them, they only think about getting something for Ginger.”
When Alongi’s husband turned his rage on their 12-year-old daughter, she knew she had to leave. She called domestic violence shelters around Michigan, where they lived, but found “they had no room for the five of us, let alone our cat,” she says.
Sadly, Alongi’s experience is common. Most domestic violence shelters in the U.S. refuse pets, often forcing victims to make the tough decision of delaying escape or abandoning their pets. Studies show that nearly 50 percent of battered women will stay in a dangerous situation out of concern for their animal companions.
Abusers often punish, manipulate and take revenge on victims through their pets, says Sherry Ramsey, director of animal cruelty prosecutions for The HSUS. Indeed, studies show that 71 percent of battered women reported their pets had been threatened, harmed or killed by their partners.
The first state to enact a protection order for pets of domestic violence victims was Maine, in 2006, and similar laws now exist in about 30 states. The HSUS is working to pass the PAWS Act, federal legislation that includes protections for the pets of domestic violence victims. “Just as importantly,” says Ramsey, “it provides grant money for emergency assistance and transitional housing for domestic violence victims and their pets.”
The provisions in the pending legislation could have helped Alongi, who left Ginger behind when she and her children fled Michigan by bus last September. Her husband abandoned the house and the cat two weeks later, and a sympathetic neighbor (with a cat-allergic husband) fed Ginger through an open window for nearly two months. “She sent videos, and I could see Ginger getting smaller and smaller,” Alongi says, “The children were heartbroken.”
Lawyer Kate Chesney with Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project took Alongi’s case and found her public housing in an apartment that allows cats. Then she began working on reuniting Ginger with her family. She found contact information on humane society.org for Michigan senior state director Jill Fritz, who immediately signed on to help..
Fritz made arrangements for Ginger to stay at the LACASA Center Crisis Shelter in Howell, Michigan, while she organized the cat’s transportation. Then she met Alongi’s neighbor at the abandoned home. “She called the cat’s name and sure enough this beautiful little calico cat came running,” says Fritz.
For three weeks, Ginger enjoyed a warm bed, food and love at LACASA, one of the only domestic violence shelters in Michigan that accepts pets. In November, Fritz drove Ginger on the first four-hour leg of her 15-hour journey to her family’s new home. A volunteer with a canine transport service drove Ginger another 10 hours, and Chesney took her the rest of the way.
Alongi and her kids cleaned the entire house prior to Ginger’s arrival. A local pet store donated kibble, treats, litter, a litter box, grooming supplies, a cat bed and toys. LACASA sent gift cards for Ginger’s ongoing care. “It was like Christmas,” Alongi says.
These days, Ginger sleeps with whoever seems to need her most that night. At family therapy sessions, the children’s moods brighten when they mention her. “I really thought we were saving Ginger when we took her in,” Alongi says. “I didn’t realize she would be doing this much for the children.”