One man broke the cat's neck in front of his family, killing it.
Another man broke a puppy's front paw because his wife was paying more attention to the puppy than to him.Yet another killed a dog when his wife wasn't home and hung it on the door for her to find.
These true-life tales - related by battered women - occurred in Utah last year and are now part of a study that shows that violence against humans and animals is linked. The study also has helped in the creation of a new program for domestic violence victims, since hurting animals and hurting humans often go hand in hand.
The study was conducted by Frank Ascione, a Utah State University psychology professor and adjunct professor in family and human development, and USU graduate student Claudia Weber, who undertook it as part of her dissertation.
"I was surprised at how horrific some of these things were. They were clearly beyond, `I got mad and lost my temper.' They were in the realm of torture and psychological torture to the women and children," Weber said.
People commonly assume that domestic violence victims stick around for the sake of the kids, but the new research showed that many stay in an abusive home because they fear for their pets.
As a result, the Salt Lake County Animal Services and the Salt Lake City Police Department have started Safe Pets/Safe People, a new program to board pets free while the victim enters a shelter and plans a new life.
"It literally can save both human and animal lives," said Temma Martin, media coordinator for the county's animal services. "In a lot of cases, the abuser uses the animal to keep the victim in the home by threatening to hurt or kill it if the victim leaves."
Shelters for battered women can't accept pets, so women often face the choice of either sticking around an abusive environment or leaving a pet, knowing that the animal may suffer.
Martin said psychologically this is a tough choice for many victims. "The animal may be the only safe and non-threatening relationship the victim has left, and the thought of leaving it behind is too painful," she said.
The research undertaken by Ascione and Weber replicated and expanded a previous study Ascione had done in 1995.
In this updated study, interviews were conducted with 101 women in Utah battered women's shelters. Interviews also were done with a comparison group of 60 women who said they had not experienced domestic violence. All had owned pets in the past year.
The study found:
- 72 percent of the battered women said their pets had been threatened with harm or death by the abuser.
- 54 percent of the battered women said their pets had, in fact, been hurt or killed by the abuser.
- 24 percent of these women said they delayed going to a shelter out of fear for their pets.
"The harming or killing of animals actually was more common in homes where children were present, and that kind of surprised us," Ascione said. "You think maybe when kids are present that people will be less likely to act out violently that way, but that was not the case in this study."
Ascione also said more than 50 percent of the children interviewed said they had tried to intervene to keep their pets from being hurt.
The Safe Pets/Safe People program, which has been in place since the end of January, has helped a few people and produced many inquiries, according to Linda Morgan, a victim advocate for the Salt Lake Police Department.
It works like this: A victim contacts the police about the domestic violence and lets officers know a pet is in the home. The victim can take the animal to the Humane Society Shelter or have Animal Services personnel pick it up.
Pets will be boarded free for 14 days, and the agency will work with individuals on a case-by-case basis for longer stays if a particular person needs more time to change living arrangements.
The records are confidential and the animals are kept out of sight so abusers can't find them or the human victim. Donations are helping pay for the program.
"This is a service that we've needed for a long time," Morgan said. "Women are finally saying, `I need to get out of this cycle of abuse' and the animals may have been her only reason for staying."
David Flagler, director of Animal Services, also plans to approach other police departments, social service agencies and other organizations with the national First Strike program.
Begun in Colorado by the American Humane Association, this program helps educate and coordinate representatives of police and social service agencies to look for all types of abuse when they investigate a claim about one type of abuse.
In other words, animal service officers checking into a mistreated dog would look for signs of abuse in the children or spouse, while police and social workers investigating domestic violence or child abuse also would look for cruelty to animals.
The reason is that these often co-exist, Martin said.
"Where there is violence, it's probably not limited to just the spouse or just the kids or just the animal. There are a lot of problems going on," she said.