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From Victim to Advocate

Once battered, Arizona woman now helps others, animals

The Humane Society of the United States

by Julie Hauserman

In a small Arizona desert town, “Mary” (not her real name) was abused by her violent husband. He beat her and he beat her beloved dog, Hannah. Like many domestic violence victims, Mary refused to leave her pets—four dogs and two cats—behind with her abuser when she fled for her life.

“If I had left them, I doubt I ever would have seen them again. He would have killed them,” she says.

Moving On

Mary managed to convince a relative to care for her pets back nearly 20 years ago when she left her abuser to rebuild her life. Now, she’s working with Humane Society of the United States Arizona State Director Kari Nienstedt and others to help other women and animals in similar situations.

Abusers exploit the bond between people and their animals. With The Humane Link, we’re looking to raise awareness.

Nienstedt is a board member with The Humane LINK, an Arizona nonprofit group that’s raising awareness about the link between animal abuse and violence. Too often, abusers threaten, injure, or kill pets as a way to punish victims and control others in the family, she says. Children who witness animal abuse sometimes mimic that behavior, setting up a devastating cycle.

“Women who are in domestic violence situations can have a tendency to delay leaving the situation because of their pets,” Mary says. “They think if they stay, they can protect the animal, not realizing that it puts them in jeopardy and the animal in jeopardy.”

Strengthening the Law

Mary says a loophole in Arizona law left her pets especially vulnerable when she escaped her abuser. Even though she had a protective order against him and was seeking a divorce, her pets were still considered community property. She was afraid he might snatch her dogs at the dog park or come get them when she had to leave them at the vet.

The Arizona Legislature is now considering a bill which would close that loophole. The measure would make it easier for a domestic violence victim who gets a protection or restraining order against her abuser to also get custody of family pets.

Although she says she was “incredibly nervous,” Mary traveled to the state capitol in Tucson and told her story to state lawmakers. She needed them to know how much closing that loophole would mean to domestic violence victims and animals in similar situations.

“This is something that is so unbelievably important,” she said. “I just don’t think there is enough education out there that talks about this link.”

A Safe Haven

Another key policy change needed for domestic violence victims, the two say, is making sure that when women call for help, they know safe locations are available for their family pets.

Across the country, local domestic violence shelters and animal protection organizations have begun partnering to develop about 100 "safe havens" for pets, so that domestic violence victims no longer have to choose between their safety and their pets.

Working Together

“The goal of The Humane LINK is to get people involved -- to get social workers involved, to get animal control officers involved, to share information, and get them the resources they need to take action on this issue,” Nienstedt said.

Another critical goal, Nienstedt said, is better information-sharing among the various agencies which respond to domestic violence or neglect calls.

“It is important for professionals in human services, animal welfare, law enforcement, and other areas to engage in cross-training and cross-reporting of domestic violence and animal abuse,” she said.

The Humane LINK draws on resources provided by local and national groups, including a campaign of The HSUS, The First Strike®. The goal is to to raise awareness about the connection between animal cruelty and other violent crime.

The 13-year-old campaign works with local animal protection agencies around the United States to bring together animal shelter workers, animal control officers, social service workers, law enforcement officials, veterinarians, educators, and others to learn about the violence connection and to promote inter-agency collaborations to reduce animal cruelty, family and community violence.

“The fact is, abusers exploit the bond between people and their animals,” Nienstedt said. “With The Humane Link, we’re looking to raise awareness.”


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