Earlier this year, a New York City woman—I’ll call her Mary—tried to leave her abusive husband. She contacted a shelter, but the shelter wouldn’t take pets. Nor would any other shelter in the city. Mary’s son said he couldn’t leave his three cats behind. And so, since Mary couldn’t leave without her son, she stayed outside the shelter system.
Pets do not get much attention in research on domestic violence, but there is reason to believe that situations like Mary's are amazingly common. A 2007 summary of available research, published in the journal Violence Against Women, found that in the dozen or so shelters in the country that collect data on the issue, between 18 and 48 percent of women said they had delayed leaving their abusers because it meant leaving their pets. In one study conducted in upstate New York, researchers found that among women who had seen their pets abused, 65 percent had put off seeking help. Presumably, many others with pets never leave home at all.
In 2008, there were only four shelters in the country that accommodated domestic animals. Today there are 73, but that’s still only about three percent of shelters nationwide, and to date, no program in a city as large or dense as New York has allowed women to “co-shelter” directly with their animals.
Between 20 and 71 percent of pet-owning women entering shelters have seen their animals harmed or threatened by their abuser.
That might be changing. In June, Mary, her children, and their cats became the first participants in a program called People and Animals Living Safely, a six-month pilot conceived by the Urban Resource Institute, a non-profit that runs four shelters in New York City, and the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, a non-profit coalition of animal rescue groups. Now Mary, kids, and pets live together in a sparsely furnished third-floor apartment in the Urban Resource Institute’s biggest shelter. Ten of the building’s 38 units have been designated pet-friendly and outfitted with crates, litter boxes, window screens, and pet food. For the pilot period, women will be allowed to bring cats and smaller animals with them into the shelter, and if enough money can be raised to build a dog run in the alley, there are plans to accept dogs by December. The Urban Resource Institute hopes to expand the PALS program to all its shelters—and prod the rest of the city’s system to do the same. When I accompanied a group of visitors there this summer, Mary was proud to show us her three new matching pet crates; the cats sat pressed against the backs of their cages, warily eyeing the outsiders.
According to the Violence Against Women research summary, between 20 and 71 percent of pet-owning women entering shelters have seen their animals harmed or threatened by their abuser. Pets can become scapegoats or hostages, the targets of threats or abuse meant to terrorize another person. But animals can also be the lone comforters and sometime protectors of isolated victims. All this makes the prospect of leaving a pet behind particularly terrifying.
Recent history has yielded some spectacular demonstrations of how far people will go to protect their pets. Eight years ago, the nation watched as many residents of New Orleans refused to evacuate their homes in advance of Hurricane Katrina in order to stay with their animals, which were barred from shelters like the Superdome. A year after the storm, Congress passed legislation requiring states to include domestic animals in their disaster evacuation plans if they wanted to receive federal disaster aid. When Hurricane Sandy hit the Eastern Seaboard last year, New York’s shelters all aggressively advertised pet-friendly policies.
Katrina was an epiphany for policymakers, says Jenny Coffey, a social worker with the Mayor’s Alliance. “People were photographed holding on to their animals for dear life. The shelters that didn’t allow the animals didn’t realize how much they were losing. ... What hasn’t happened,” Coffey adds, “is the trickle-down of that understanding to the small, personal life crises— specifically domestic violence. Until this plan.”
There are still glitches to be worked out with the PALS program. For instance, the city’s domestic violence hotline, which matches victims with shelters, does not yet ask callers whether they have pets. Consequently, few women learn that pet-friendly options exist. And it remains to be seen how shelters can best deal with allergies, pet health, and liabilities if residents are bitten or scratched.
But there’s little doubt that pets are on victims’ minds. In the shelter where Mary and her children now live, the walls of the basement rec room are covered with pictures from kids’ art-therapy sessions. Almost all of them are of cats and dogs.