• Dogs can be a great source of comfort as companion dogs. (Getty Images )
"Once, he tried to throw (our dog) through an open door but she hit the glass. I’d be screaming on the inside.”
By
Brigid Blackney

30 Aug 2018 - 8:48 AM  UPDATED 30 Aug 2018 - 9:58 AM

When Tania tried to leave her violent partner, no housing options were available to allow her to take her dog Hazel, leaving her stuck with a man who’d been physically and verbally abusive for over two years. She couldn’t risk leaving Hazel behind with him.

“He’d hold Hazel too tight around the nose and wouldn’t let her go when I asked him to,” Tania says. “Once, he tried to throw her through an open door but she hit the glass. All that stuff has just stuck with me – I’d be screaming on the inside.”

Eventually Tania was desperate enough to move herself and Hazel into her car, living there for months until she found affordable pet-friendly accommodation. 

“Sometimes they do take it that far that they kill [pets] and say ‘if you leave, the same thing will happen to you’.”

Stories like Tania’s are familiar to Jennifer Howard, who founded Safe Pets Safe Families – a foster care service in South Australia. Safe Pets Safe Families has more than 100 carers who welcome animals into their homes while owners leave violent relationships. More than 400 animals have been fostered since 2016.

Howard says anecdotal evidence from support groups plus considerable research shows pet abuse is widespread within a domestic violence context.

Of all the tactics used by perpetrators of domestic violence to control their partners, the most effective is sometimes the one lying quietly at their feet.

Of all the tactics used by perpetrators of domestic violence to control their partners, the most effective is sometimes the one lying quietly at their feet.

Companion animals – often a source of comfort for abused women – have been shown to be at risk of deliberate harm from abusers in violent households.

“The perpetrators definitely use the pets as a bargaining tool,” she says. “I’ve been compiling stories of people that have actually lost their pets due to domestic violence – they’ve actually been killed by their partner. Sometimes they do take it that far that they kill [pets] and say ‘if you leave, the same thing will happen to you’.”

Howard says there’s a huge demand for pet foster care, as few women’s shelters in South Australia can take in animals. Safe Pets Safe Families accepts referrals from Women’s Safety Services SA and the RSPCA for animals who are at risk.

“He’d hold Hazel too tight around the nose and wouldn’t let her go when I asked him to.”

Pets can be subjected to anything from intentional neglect through to horrifying injuries causing death. A strong bond between a woman and a pet is something abusers can exploit, threatening the animal with harm to demand compliance.

It’s also another barrier to women escaping from violence, as most women’s shelters can’t accommodate pets. Women may delay leaving a dangerous situation because of worries over their animal’s safety.

Some pets come into the service traumatised by violence, so there’s an animal behaviourist on board to help. There are also several foster farms where larger animals from rural areas can receive care.

Howard herself escaped from a violent relationship and understands the grief of not being able to keep pets safe. She left her two beloved dogs behind, who’d been with her “through everything. I remember being on the couch, crying and scared, and the dogs are sitting on the couch with me too, scared, shaking.”

Howard says pets should be recognised as family members and included more in the conversations about domestic violence. “It just haunts me so much to this day that I couldn’t take them with me. The reason I started Safe Pets Safe Families is that I didn’t want anyone to feel the pain that I felt.”

Cheryl Keneally has volunteered as a foster carer in the service for the past year and admits it’s not always easy.

“I’ve had about 15 or 16 animals through my house, and they each come with their own challenges. Some are lovable and some are not,” she laughs. 

To maintain her safety and privacy, the transport of pets from their original home to Keneally’s is done by another volunteer, and “as a foster you don’t get to know much about the dog’s or cat’s background”.

The animals are matched with foster carers based on suitability, and Keneally admits to forming strong bonds with some of her longer-term residents, who might stay with her for up to three months.

“It is quite a different dog that you say goodbye to, to the one you received,” she says. “There’s a couple that I’ve really been attached to and you do shed a tear once they go… you do wonder what they’re going back into. It’s not healthy to know that, because it eats you alive.”

Prior to fostering, Keneally did some of the transport runs and met some of the women who entrust Safe Pets Safe Families with their fur kids.

“From that perspective it’s a completely different set of emotions. You can see the trauma that these women are experiencing and the trauma of letting their animals go, and having enough trust to let you take their animals.” 

“From the foster side I don’t want to let them go, but from the volunteer side, when you see the impact, you appreciate the good work that we all do.” 

If you’d like to help, more information can be found at safepetssafefamilies.org.au.  

Family violence and mental health services: 

My mother died because my father killed her. Full stop.
I watched as my father hammered multiple bullets into my mother’s flesh. In that moment, the world I knew completely vanished from existence.
How I healed after my mother's murder and became an advocate for women
To lose my mother so violently and prematurely – she was only 45 years old – was more than a death. It was devastation.