Save a pet, save a life
Researchers examine role pets play in decision to escape domestic violence
BY LINDA CHILDERS ’85
A shared love of dogs and an interest in domestic violence research led two CSUEB associate professors — Dawna Komorosky of the Department of Criminal Justice Administration and Dianne Rush Woods of the Department of Social Work — to embark on a six-month research project to examine pet policies at the state’s domestic violence shelters.
“The family pet is often an overlooked victim of domestic violence,” Komorosky says. “Concern for the safety of a family pet prevents many women from leaving a violent situation. They fear the worst if they leave their pet behind.”
Stories abound about pets that have been beaten, tormented, or killed at the hands of abusers. Both Komorosky and Rush Woods have heard heartbreaking stories of dogs and cats that have been shot, kicked, and bludgeoned in a cruel twist to domestic violence disputes.
“Batterers frequently threaten to kill or maim their partner’s or children’s pets, if they attempt to leave a violent household,” Komorosky says. “They use animal abuse as a tool to demonstrate their control over their family.”
Knowing that abandoning their beloved pets isn’t a viable option for many women who are in an abusive relationship, Komorosky and Rush Woods set out to discover how many domestic violence shelters throughout California allowed pets, and how often women with pets were turned away. Their research project queried 73 shelters about their pet policies and found that most shelters don’t provide care for animals, citing reasons including liability and space concerns.
“The number of victims who never leave due to concern for the safety and well-being of a pet is immeasurable,” Komorosky says.
According to research from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) these concerns are well founded — 70 percent to 75 percent of women reporting domestic violence also stated that their partner had threatened or actually hurt or killed one or more of their pets. The ASPCA also notes that abusers often use family pets as a means of psychologically controlling their wives and children or to force them to remain silent about abuse.
“Studies have shown that violent and aggressive criminals are more likely to have abused animals as children than criminals considered non-aggressive, “ Rush Woods says. According to a 1997 study by the Massachusetts SPCA and Northeastern University, animal abusers are five times more likely to commit violent crimes against people and four times more likely to commit property crimes than individuals without a history of animal abuse.
Since most domestic violence shelters are overcrowded and underfunded, it’s not possible to erect an on-site kennel or to pay the extra costs of caring for a family pet, report organizations surveyed in the CSUEB study.
“If a woman does have a pet, it usually goes to a foster placement or with a friend, and the victim is responsible for the cost,” Komorosky says. “This is an issue, as most women leaving an abusive relationship don’t have a lot of money, so the cost could potentially prevent her from going to a shelter.”
Rush Woods notes their research project is timely since securing protection for pets has become a big issue in the field of domestic violence. Four states passed laws in 2010 allowing companion animals to be included in restraining orders. Since 2006, 17 states, including California, have passed such legislation.
“Pets are being recognized as an important part of the family,” she says. “They provide a sense of comfort, which is important for a woman and her children who are escaping an abusive situation.”
The shelters that responded to the research study all noted that Komorosky and Rush Woods had identified a critical gap in the system — one that often forces women to choose between their own personal safety and the safety of a beloved pet.
“I see the next steps in our research project as helping to identify funding for these domestic violence shelters who want to accommodate pets and linking them with agencies and (volunteers) that can house pets on a temporary basis,” Komorosky says.
She envisions the project aiding programs such as Pets and Women’s Shelters (PAWS) Program, offered through the American Humane Society, which helps family violence emergency housing shelters to create safe environments that allow clients to bring pets with them. Additionally, the AHS offers grants to domestic and family violence shelters to assist with costs associated with adding on-site pet housing. The Humane Society of the United States also has developed a program, Safe Haven for Animals, that provides temporary shelter for pets and is available in 47 states.
Komorosky and Rush Woods now hope to develop a list of resources for California shelters to use so that when a survivor of violence is ready to leave a violent situation there will be no barriers.
“I see us identifying some of the best practices that shelters can tap into to ensure their residents’ pets are well-taken care of until these women can get back on their feet,” Rush Woods says. “There are animal welfare shelters and veterinary hospitals that might be open to providing temporary or foster care on a pro bono or sliding scale basis, but right now the domestic violence shelters are too overwhelmed to locate these resources.”
Both associate professors see how the information from their research study can also be introduced in their classes.
“I think it’s important for students who are pursuing a career in social work or criminal justice to be aware of the factors that might keep a woman from leaving a violent domestic situation,” Rush Woods says. “If you don’t know the proper questions to ask, you might not understand the victim has concerns about her pet’s safety and that’s why she’s hesitant to leave.”