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January 5, 2011

A Haven for Abuse Victims—And Pets

Good fences make Monika's House an even better neighbor

  • Volunteers built enclosures at a domestic violence shelter so dogs and cats can stay with their owners. Washington County, Ore., D.A.'s Office

  • This new pen is safely fenced and includes a dog house ready for the first canine guest. Washington County, Ore.,D.A.'s Office

by Julie Hauserman

Many abused women won't flee violent homes because they are afraid to leave their pets behind with their abusers. When a domestic violence victim finally makes the call for help, she'll likely discover that most shelters just don't have the resources to house animals.

In Oregon, The Humane Society of the United States joined with the nonprofit group Fences for Fido and the Washington County Animal Protection Multidisciplinary Team to help provide one local solution.

Fences for Fido, founded by Kelly Peterson, The HSUS' Vice President of Field Services, normally raises money and recruits volunteers to build free fences for tethered dogs. This time, the volunteers gathered to build five fenced kennels and a place for cats and other small animals at Monika's House, a 27-bed domestic violence shelter outside Portland, Ore.

The HSUS donated $500 toward materials for the project.

"The HSUS was honored to be asked to participate in something that was long overdue," Peterson said. "We really want to help women who have a special bond with their pets. We want to make sure they can leave their houses and ensure that their family is safe—including four-legged family members."

Widespread need

"This is going to eliminate a barrier for victims seeking shelter," said Whitney Zeigler, a victim assistance specialist at the Washington County District Attorney's office.

Zeigler, an animal lover who volunteers at a local animal shelter, spearheaded the Monika's House project.

Acknowledging the role of family pets in domestic violence situations is an important trend among social service, public safety, and animal control departments around the country.

"We've had many cases in our office where there has been overlap between animal abuse, child abuse, and domestic violence," Zeigler said.

Abusers often hurt or even kill pets to terrorize family members.

"It's another way of controlling the victim," Zeigler said. "The abuser will hurt the pets, and threaten: 'If I can do this to the dog, I can do this to you, too.' Or they will say: 'I'll kill them if you don't come back.'"

Changing the laws

The HSUS is working with The Animal Welfare Institute to develop an online database of safe havens that accommodate pets in domestic violence cases.

Many states, including Oregon, have a loophole when it comes to pets in domestic violence situations. When a domestic violence victim gets a protective order to keep an abusive spouse away, the order typically does not protect pets. If a pet is not listed on a temporary restraining order, police and courts are often reluctant to get involved in what is usually considered a marital property dispute.

This spring, Peterson and other domestic violence advocates will head to the statehouse in Salem, where they will ask the legislature to create an explicit provision for pets in protective orders. So far, 18 states have passed laws to ensure that victims can include their pets in restraining orders.

"We're going to be working hard this spring to change Oregon's law," Peterson said. "It's terrible to see domestic violence of any kind, and we need to recognize that innocent animals also end up being victimized. That traumatizes and endangers the whole family."

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