Tom Smart, Deseret News
PEOA, Summit County — As domestic violence rips through homes, there is concern for everyone living there, including pets.
One rescue center is providing a safe place for pets in homes where domestic violence is present, which then gives their owners more freedom to leave an abusive environment.
“We open a door to them to essentially a new life,” said Lisa Allison, executive director of Friends of Animals Utah. "When the families have the ability to escape and have a place to take the pet, it changes their whole ability to escape.”
The Purple Paw Project, a Friends of Animals Utah program dedicated to ensuring that victims can leave their homes and have a place to bring their animals, is now housing four pets from abusive homes, Allison said. Since the project was created in July 2012, she said, the project has had 37 pets at its facility.
"We never realized that it would be as necessary and needed as quickly as it happened,” Allison said. “We knew that there would be a few pets, but it really exploded."
When domestic violence shelters cannot accommodate a pet, “it just creates an additional barrier for that person,” said Kendra Wyckoff, education coordinator for the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition.
During Wyckoff's time as an advocate, she said, it is very common for victims to stay in their situation because they are fearful of what will happen to their pets.
“Pet abuse is something that is commonly used when we look at tactics and how an abuser can manipulate and control their partner,” she said. "One of the things that I have often heard from victims is that this tactic is very, very effective because they’re extremely concerned about their animal."
It's not just pets living in homes; it can extend to horses, cows, sheep or other farm animals, Wyckoff said.
Frank Ascione, scholar in residence at the University of Denver graduate school of social work, conducted studies on animal abuse and domestic violence.
“What we discovered was that about 70 percent of the women had pets who came to the domestic violence shelter, and about half of them indicated that their partner had either hurt or killed one of their animals,” he said. “In 25 percent of those cases, the women indicated concern for their pets' welfare had actually prevented them from coming to the shelter earlier than they did.”
Ascione also replicated the study, including a comparison group, and said 54 percent of women who were in an abusive relationships said their partner hurt or killed one or more of their pets. Women who were not in abusive relationships reported 5 percent of their partners had done the same thing.
According to Wyckoff, animal abuse is a warning sign the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition looks for in domestic violence situations.
“If somebody is likely to hurt an animal living in the home, then it’s not a giant leap to go from hurting animals to hurting humans,” she said. "It’s important to stress that being violent or abusive to animals is one of the early warning signs of the potential for intimate partner violence."
Ascione said many of the people in violent relationships are not well-connected with their communities and are unable to ask a neighbor to watch their pet while they go to a shelter. They're often without close relatives and can’t always afford to board the animals.
“The availability of pet shelters for the survivor of domestic violence is really, really important,” he said.
Many domestic violence shelters have relationships with local animal shelters to offer a place for pets.
Allison said she’s had many people tell her the shelter wasn’t their last resort — it was their only resort.
“We’ve served the entire state of Utah, but we’ve actually had people leave from across state lines who have wound up coming to us,” she said.
Animals who stay at the rescue center do so free of charge and with an open-ended stay. Most of the pets need medical attention such as vaccinations and spay or neutering, Allison said. One-third of the animals need medical attention directly related to the abusive situation. The center takes care of the animals' medical needs free of charge.
Allison said she has seen huge changes in the lives of people who take advantage of the rescue center.
“We don’t just save lives, we transform them,” she said.
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