Women and pets: Side by side at Minnesota shelters

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 10, 2014 - 9:13 PM

More domestic abuse shelters make room for pets, to ease stress and to help victims escape.

– The northern Minnesota woman needed a safe place to escape a threatening relationship, but she hesitated to leave for a domestic violence shelter, worried about what would happen to her four-year-old cat.

“I had him since he was three weeks old,” she said. “I didn’t want to give him to a shelter … He’s kind of like my baby … I also wanted to protect him.”

She ended up giving the cat away to a relative’s neighbor before seeking refuge at Anna Marie’s Alliance, a women’s shelter in this central Minnesota city. Sitting in a break room there this week, the woman worried about the cat and missed his comforting purrs.

It’s a scenario that workers at Anna Marie’s have heard so often that they’re doing something about it: Raising money to build a pet center on their grounds so that victims of violence don’t have to be separated from their animals or give them up.

Anna Marie’s is part of an increasing trend in domestic abuse shelters around the country. While many make arrangements for pets to be fostered or kenneled elsewhere, the number of shelters allowing pets there has surged from just four in 2008 to at least 77 now, with 15 more planned, according to Allie Phillips, founder of Sheltering Animals and Families Together.

A refusal to be separated

“There’s far too many families that refuse to be separated from their pets,” Phillips said. “Especially when you’re going through a traumatic situation, your pets can provide you great comfort.”

An estimated 68 percent of American households have a pet, according to a survey by the American Pet Products Association. Phillips said various studies show that up to 48 percent of women with pets delay or refuse leaving their abusive home out of fear for their pets or livestock.

Animals are often used as pawns in abuse, shelter workers know.

Margaret Bushinger started advocating for pets at Anna Marie’s after working nights as an advocate there in 2008. “A family came in. A little boy was crying and begging his mom to go home because he knew if the dad got upset, he was going to kill his dog,” she said.

Since then, the shelter has found foster homes for pets while victims are housed there, but leaders saw it would be better to house the animals with their owners.

So far, the 36-bed shelter has raised $30,000 toward a planned 20-foot-by-24-foot, heated and air-conditioned building. Building plans show space for a living room area with furniture and a television for humans to spend time with their animals, along with separate boarding space for up to five dogs and five cats.

Shelter leaders also plan to use the space to teach children from abusive homes how to properly care for animals, knowing that many of them have witnessed animals being treated harshly.

St. Cloud will join a couple of other Minnesota shelters known to accept pets: Women’s Shelter Inc. in Rochester allows pets in clients’ rooms on a case-by-case basis, evaluating each pet to make sure it won’t cause problems for others.

The Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center Inc. in Brainerd also allows pets in certain rooms and was among the first in the country to do so in the late 1970s.

An early lesson

Founder Louise Seliski said one of the first women at the shelter was married to a man who told the woman’s friends that if she didn’t come home he was going to kill the cat, Seliski recalled. The man followed through, beating the cat to death with a baseball bat.

“I said that’s not going to happen again,” Seliski recalled.

  • related content

  • Tammy Berger spent three months at the Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center in Brainerd with her dog Betsy Moo Moo after leaving a boyfriend abusive to both of them.

  • Tammy Berger her "Betsy Moo Moo."

  • Women’s Center founder Louise Seliski, at left with Berger and her dog, said the Brainerd shelter has allowed pets in certain areas since the 1970s without incident.

  • Seliski recalled an early client of the shelter whose husband threatened to kill a cat if she didn’t come home. He later beat the animal to death with a bat.

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