In mid-2014, the Alberta Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) began a safekeeping program for domestic abuse victims their pets, giving the opportunity for victims to leave their abusive home, despite having no place to keep their animals safe.
While the Alberta SPCA’s program is currently only available in Edmonton – with 26 social service agencies currently participating – other SPCAs and humane societies are running programs throughout the province as well.
The program is offered to victims, whose information is kept confidential, at no charge. Animals receive temporary foster care and are given any necessary veterinary care such as checkups, vaccinations, any other treatments that are needed, and are spayed or neutered if requested by owner.
Shelters opened their arms to pets coming from violent homes after a study conducted from 2010 to 2011 by the Alberta SPCA – which surveyed 296 women in emergency shelters – revealed more than half of the women who had pets had delayed leaving their abusive homes because of them. In this same study, 85% of the women reported that their pets received threats by their partners and 36% reported their animals were harmed.
The study’s final report, written by principal researcher Dr. Donna Crawford and co-researcher Dr. Veronika Bohac Clarke, stated: “For women with animals they wished to protect by bringing them with as they left, solutions and assistance were not easy to find… many rural or farm women, especially those with livestock, were so affected by their circumstances that they simply did not, or could not, leave.”
According to the Alberta SPCA, the province has the second highest rate of self-reported domestic abuse in Canada.
The study revealed that children are also affected by violence that occurs within the home. Three of the victims’ adult children who were interviewed stated that their current relationships were greatly influenced by past experiences with violence.
“For the three child witnesses who were interviewed as adults, encountering animal and human violence as children meant they suffered both short and long-term personal repercussions as a result,” the study explained. Services providers who were also interviewed mentioned several ways children are affected by domestic abuse when there are pets in the house, including “worrying about the care and safety of animals left with the abuser; missing the animals’ emotional companionship; feeling guilty about not saving them; and fear of never seeing them again.”
Of the 296 participants in the study, 75 had both children and animals while 59 had animals but no children.
Most of the participants either took their animals with them or left the animals with their partner. Both cases reveal a need for services provided by shelters.
“The dog is probably still with him or dead. I knew he would be homeless once I left, he would have no money or anywhere to live or any way to feed the dog,” said one respondent. “It was devastating to leave [dog’s name] and I knew what would happen, but it was the only safe way to get out of the house that day. I know he will take it out on him for me leaving; the dog will suffer for me and the kids.”
While most women stated they stayed longer in their relationship than they would have if there were no pets or animals, more than 62% of animal-owning respondents stated they were not afraid to seek help.
With more programs like the one the Alberta SPCA provides, domestic abuse victims will be more likely to seek help earlier and leave abusive environments knowing their animals will be taken care of.