A Utah State University professor's research about the connection between cruelty toward animals and domestic violence has influenced lawmakers in Maine to adopt a new law — the first of its kind in the nation — that expands the scope of protective orders to include pets.

Frank Ascione, USU professor of psychology, has conducted extensive research on the link between mistreating animals and mistreating women. One of his studies published in 1998 showed that 71 percent of women in a Utah shelter for battered women said their partner had threatened or hurt the woman's pet.

That study was cited by Maine Rep. John Piotti, a Democrat, who sponsored a bill that became law on Monday that permits judges to include pets in protective orders for people leaving abusive relationships.

A subsequent study by Ascione and some of his colleagues, due to be published soon, involved five Utah shelters and 101 women who reported being battered, along with a control group of 120 women who said they had not been battered.

In that study, 54 percent of the women who had been battered said their partner hurt or killed the animal, while 18 percent of the women reported the abusive partner had threatened the pet. These findings have been supported by other studies conducted since then in South Carolina, New York, Canada and Australia.

"This new law is a progressive effort that should become a model for other states," Ascione said.

"Hopefully, it will convince judges and prosecutors of that the importance of animals in the lives of women who are battered is important enough to include these animals in orders of protection," Ascione said.

This also sends a message to batterers, Ascione said: If they violate a civil protection order by hurting pets, it could result in criminal charges ultimately being filed against them.

His work confirms that abusers threaten, torture or even kill pets as a means of forcing their partner to stay in the relationship and put up with whatever the abuser wants.

In his 1998 study, Ascione said some women reported they stayed behind with the batterer because they didn't know what to do with their pets.

Ascione said other research shows that the women's concern about pets affected their decision to stay in the relationship or leave, and some new findings suggest that abused women can be coerced into committing crimes out of fear for their pets.

Ascione is the author of "Safe Havens for Pets: Guidelines for Programs Sheltering Pets For Women Who are Battered" and another book published last year titled "Children and Animals: Exploring the Roots of Kindness and Cruelty."

He is convinced the new Maine law not only helps protect women and animals, but also will benefit children.

Frequently, abusive men will hurt or kill the family pet in front of children, which can emotionally damage youngsters.

Comment on this story

"Kids identify very strongly with animals," Ascione said. "They think, 'If Dad or my Mom's boyfriend can do this to our dog, what is he capable of doing to us?' "

Temma Martin, spokeswoman for Salt Lake County Animal Services, also applauded Maine's new law.

"In many cases, the victim is isolated from family and friends and the pet may be the only source of comfort the victim has, which makes the victim much more vulnerable," she said. "The abuser can say, 'Go ahead and leave, but you won't like what happens to the dog.' "

Salt Lake County Animal Services has a Safe Pets/Safe People program for women who enter a domestic violence shelter that doesn't accept pets: They can board their animals for as long as a month if they produce official proof of an abuse investigation, such as a police report number.

E-mail: lindat@desnews.com