‘My dog is family’: domestic abuse victims and the pets they can’t leave
When abuse causes the breakup of a home, it’s not just the people who suffer. Leaving an abuser is difficult and dangerous, but with a pet it is even harder.
There was a cat, the man at the shelter tells me, who was put in a microwave. The man was furious at his partner for leaving the house to run errands without his permission. Knowing she was half an hour away, he told her that if she did not return home within the next 10 minutes, he would put her beloved cat in the microwave. The feat was impossible – and the resulting punishment and distress hard to imagine.
Leaving an abuser can be one of the most dangerous times for a victim. But if you have a pet, leaving is even harder. Almost half of abused victims will delay their departure if they cannot bring their animals.
And yet, few domestic abuse shelters around the US are able to accommodate pets. In New York City, the Urban Resource Institute (URI), which has been doing so since 2013, is the only one providing such a service in just a couple of its shelters. The need far exceeds services provided, staff say.
Shockingly, given that approximately 65% of American households have pets, URI say they have only identified seven other urban shelters across the US able to accommodate domestic violence survivors together with their animals.
A Pet and Women Safety Act (shortened to PAWS) is currently pending in Congress. If passed into federal law, the legislation, which implicitly links the two issues of pet abuse and domestic violence, would expand protections to pets and victims of domestic violence. It would also, crucially, expand funding for more comprehensively equipped domestic violence shelters.
The following are a few stories of humans and their pets that have recently come through URI doors. All names have been changed as requested for safety purposes.
Andrea slowly recounts the events of the past few years. The tears come and go as she remembers the abuse, the extraordinary anguish and struggle as her family were effectively left homeless after her partner and abuser of two decades abruptly left them all. He stopped paying almost all bills, including rent.
Left on the street, having been kicked out of their apartment last November, were her two children, Alana, now 21, and Craig, now 14. With them were Buster, the family beagle and blue-nosed pit bull mix, and Twig, her son’s bearded dragon lizard.
Instantly, it was panic. Her children were the first to find places to stay, although she had to sleep on the streets for a week. Slowly, the process for finding more permanent shelter began, and by early 2016 they all had roofs over their heads.
But housing the family lizard was another matter entirely. Twig – whose favorite things are light, sitting on her log, and riding on Buster-the-beagle-pit-mix’s back – ended up in Andrea’s storage unit, where Andrea visited her twice a week.
After a few disastrous stays with friends, Buster the dog was eventually housed in a car, with a blanket, his food and his bed. During the winter, Buster spent 45 days straight there. Daughter Alana visited him every day to walk him, and Andrea would come and visit him whenever she could, but the visits grew increasingly emotional and heartbreaking. “He didn’t understand what was happening,” Andrea says.
Later, when she was given accommodation in a non-pet-friendly shelter, Andrea was so desperate to keep Buster close, she started smuggling him in and out of housing in a suitcase.
“People told me to put him up for adoption, or to put him down. But I kept telling them, I can’t do that. He’s family. He saved my life,” Andrea says, explaining that during her worst months of depression while she was abused, Buster was the only thing getting her out of the house and enabling rays of sun to hit her face. They were a team.
Besides, Buster had gone through some of the abuse with her. Andrea’s ex-partner would often withhold food from the dog. When he did feed him, he would sometimes intentionally feed him food he knew to be poisonous, Andrea believes, causing the animal to become worryingly sick.
Andrea says there were warning signs her husband, from whom she is seeking divorce and with whom she had been since the age of 17, “raised” her into who he wanted her to be. She accompanied him to awards shows and functions, she recounts, took care of him and the kids, stopped working at his request, and focused on domestic life. But over the years, the all-controlling abuse took hold, leading her to at times be so depressed she could not leave her bed.
During that time, Buster became a lifesaver in more ways than one. “His [Buster’s] love is unconditional. I love the kids, I really appreciate them, but they talk back,” she laughs.
There were few others to turn to. If she ever reached out to her wider family or friends with concerns, they would highlight how good a provider he [her abuser] was, she says. “People would say: ‘Well, that’s how men are, you are too independent.’”
Little did they know his financial control was a clear part of the abuse. Money was available for what he deemed necessary, but if there was somewhere for her to go to he did not approve of – like a job interview, for instance – he would tend to forget to leave her any money for her Metrocard, leaving her stranded, helpless and jobless in the house.
Years later, and left out on the street, it became clear that what she had thought was “the fairytale” – a husband, kids and pets, and the idea of happily growing old together – had been anything but that.
Her saving call came mid-March from Ann Michitsch, the People and Animals Living Safely program coordinator at the Urban Resource Institute.
“Ann said we have a place for you and the family,” Andrea says. “And finally, I could breathe. I feel like after all these years, I can finally learn how to breathe again.”
The shelters function in the format of apartment buildings, with communal areas for all residents where social workers, therapists, program coordinators and child carers spend time working every day. There are computer labs and job training opportunities, with all residents given the tools to heal and gain financial independence – sometimes for the first time ever.
Andrea says her children have since started smiling, talking, and fighting again – a healthy sign of normalcy. The three of them are studying for a degree. Buster can now be brought in through the front door, not hidden in a suitcase. And Twig, who survived month after months in the storage unit, could finally be fetched and cared for.
“The band is back together again,” Andrea says with joy in her voice. “When you’re in a storm, you don’t realize you’re in a storm. We didn’t know that we were caught up like that. The best thing he could do is leave.”
Hilda and her cat, Midnight
Abuse has followed Hilda, now in her mid-30s, most of her life. Her story is fraught with traumatic episodes, extreme suffering, and survival. Today, out of harm’s way for the past year, and living at a URI shelter with her cat Midnight and her seven-year-old son, her focus has turned to helping others through raising awareness of the obstacles faced by survivors like her and working in the medical industry.
As a child, Hilda was abused and raped by her older stepbrother, who threatened to rape their two younger sisters, who were toddlers at the time, were she to report him. Her mother did little to intervene.
A relationship in her late 20s turned abusive too. She escaped the father of her second son, and rented the basement flat of a friend for two years, where she lived with her two children, for a while undiscovered.
But her former partner and abuser found her location in late 2014, having followed her home in a car.
What happened that day was traumatic. “He thought he had rights with me. He pushed me and I slid on the floor.
“I had this huge man on top of me, on this concrete floor, cold as hell,” she remembers, trembling at the memory. She hit him with all the might of her small body and managed to get him to leave. But after that she was scarred and in shock. “It brought back so many bad memories of what I had dealt with.”
Hilda says she tried to commit suicide three times. “The stress was too much. My body wasn’t mine any more,” she says.
What kept her going were her kids and the knowledge that they needed her.
At the beginning of 2015, feeling helpless and vulnerable, she moved in to her mother’s apartment, which had at the time been taken over by one of her younger sisters. But following a bad accident a few years ago, her sister had gone from a recreational drug user to a full-time user. The flat that Hilda recovered was little more than a crackhouse. Slowly, over the course of a few weeks, she tried to turn the apartment around, changing the locks, and refusing entry to drug users.
The apartment held within it a happy surprise too: Midnight the cat. Hilda laughs and says Midnight was the “cat from hell” by the time they started sharing a roof. “Anybody that was close to her, they were bleeding,” Hilda remembers. It seemed clear that Hilda’s sister and her fellow drug users had been both neglectful and abusive to the animal.
Hilda held immense fondness for a scared and traumatized Midnight. Her sister and mother thought of giving Midnight up for adoption through the ASPCA, but Hilda would have none of it. “I told my mother she is family. You do not turn family out. I will keep her, I said. I cleaned her litter, and gave her food to eat.”
But Hilda’s stay in the flat was short-lived. Within weeks, her sister had attacked her twice with a sharp knife and the second time her sister put the knife to her neck and tried to kill her.
This time around, Hilda and her son had nowhere to turn but to the shelter system.
Not knowing she could bring Midnight into a shelter with her, for almost two months, Hilda braved the apartment in which her sister had tried to kill her most days – to feed her cat.
“It was dangerous, but what was I going to do? That’s me, that’s my daughter,” Hilda explains of Midnight who is now around six years old. “What are you going to do? Leave your child behind?”
With the speedy return of drug users to the flat, neighbors eventually called the police, and the apartment was sealed off. Midnight was captured by animal control.
Immediate realization of what had happened, and coordination by Ann Michitsch, the People and Animals Living Safely coordinator at the Urban Resource Institute, led to Hilda finding Midnight and saving her. Two months after escaping from harm’s way themselves, Hilda and her son were reunited with Midnight in a URI apartment – all of them finally together and safe.
Today, a little under a year from the escape, Midnight is a transformed cat, and Hilda and her son are full of life and hope for the future.
Midnight’s favorite activity is finding the smallest possible boxes to curl up in, and she is no longer hiding from or aggressive towards strangers. “I didn’t think she had the strength to be this way because of everything she’s been through,” Hilda says.
Does Hilda’s son like Midnight too? “He loves her. That’s his sister.”