Sheltering Both Domestic Violence Victims and Their Pets

(Photo by Astrid Westvang, Creative Commons license)

(Photo by Astrid Westvang, Creative Commons license)

The statistics from the American Humane Association are stunning: four out of 10 battered women are unable to escape domestic violence because they are worried about leaving their animals behind at the hands of their abuser. It is common to see cases in which an abuser hurts or even kills the victim’s pets. The problem is that, for now, many shelters do not accept animals.

In response to this challenge, Ulster County (N.Y.) will soon implement a program for victims of domestic violence that will offer shelter to both the victims and their animal companions.

Family of Woodstock, a nonprofit organization established in 1970 which provides human services to communities in Ulster County, has established the program in response to growing evidence that shows the connection between animal abuse and violence in the home against women and children. A large number of victims put up with the suffering because they cannot take their animals with them.

Merle Borenstein, a board member at Family of Woodstock, came up with the idea. Three years ago, she attended a seminar where the relation between different types of domestic violence was discussed. Law enforcement and animal welfare representatives mentioned that few shelters offer victims the chance to bring their pets when escaping violence at home. Borenstein has worked with the local Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals before, and is an animal lover herself, so she felt the need to do something about this problem. “I love animals, and, as a woman, I can imagine what happens to these women. I don’t know what I would do if I was in a similar situation,” said Borenstein.

Even though details are still in the works, Borenstein believes that there is “the will and an agreement at Family of Woodstock to provide this service to clients. We will do everything in our power to make it happen.” For now, ideas include renting space in an animal shelter that does not kill unwanted animals.

Although Borenstein thinks that it would be better if the pets stayed with their victims, there are potential allergy, noise, child safety and animal behavior problems.

However, many animal shelters are already overcrowded, and they would not be capable of accepting the victims’ pets.

Another idea is to build a small extension to an existing animal shelter for the program to use. Because of insurance issues – as well as the caring of the animals and the existence of facilities for safety, heating, water, electricity, ventilation and draining – it makes sense to build it in a shelter that already has these characteristics.

Family of Woodstock will assist the victims in visiting their pets until they can find a place to stay in an apartment that fits the whole family, pets included. For their protection, the location of both the victims’ and the animal shelter will be kept secret. Borenstein says that this project will start slowly, with three spaces for dogs and two for cats.

Boreinstein and Michael Berg, executive director for Family of Woodstock, expect to have the shelter open in the fall of this year.

Contacts:

For victims who are not Ulster County residents, or for people who need this service immediately, there are similar programs created by the Grace Smith House and Safe Homes of Orange County. Please call Grace Smith House at (845) 471-3033, Safe Homes of Orange County at (845) 562-5340, and Family of Woodstock at (845) 679-2485 or (845) 338-2370. There is no need to be a resident of these counties to gain access to their pet program, but the person must already be a client at the shelter. All three organizations offer services in Spanish.

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