Once the yelling subsided, the woman’s boyfriend of 10 months shifted his ire to her cats.
According to a complaint filed in Hennepin County District court, Javier Pena killed one of the woman’s kittens during a heated argument last fall in her south Minneapolis home. Pena grabbed another kitten and refused to give it back until the girlfriend left the house. After she agreed, he followed her outside, where he killed the second as she watched.
It is the kind of case that might have attracted the attention of the Domestic Violence Initiative, a little-known Minneapolis Animal Care & Control program that provides a temporary safe haven for pets from troubled homes.
“Basically what we have is the animal also goes into protective custody here,” said Caroline Hairfield, the agency’s director. “And they remain here under our protection.”
For the past eight years, the program has quietly been serving battered victims with pets from all over Minneapolis at Animal Control’s facility off West River Road. It provides free boarding and veterinary care for animals whose owners are staying at homeless or domestic abuse shelters — few of which allow pets — until a more permanent placement can be provided.
Until now, few victims used the service, run in partnership with the Minnesota Alliance for Family and Animal Safety (MN-AFAS) — the program handles only about a dozen cases a year, Hairfield says. But, with the growing recognition of how pets become pawns in the cycle of domestic violence, she hopes that will soon change.
“[Pets] suffer from the same PTSD that we do,” she said. “They’re often fearful and withdrawn, sometimes, hypervigilant.”
In rare cases, she said, Animal Control officers, accompanied by police, will visit an abuser’s home to retrieve an animal. But most come to the facility as police referrals or drop-offs, she says.
After being checked for diseases and getting all their necessary shots, the animals are moved into 4- by 6-foot cages stacked in a secluded area of the facility — away from the commotion of the “general population” — which can house more than 300 animals of all species “outside of a cow or a horse,” Hairfield said.
The aim is to make the facility feel as much like a home atmosphere as possible for the animals, some of which may have suffered neurological trauma, until they are reclaimed by their owners or sent to a foster home. The average stay is only a week, she said, but extensions are granted on a case-by-case basis.
The housing and feeding tcosts come out of the agency’s budget, Hairfield said, but owners may be on the hook for more expensive medical care.
“It can be from $20 a day from animals, and up, depending on how much care that animal requires,” she said.
Knowing that their pets are safe gives victims one less worry as they try to heal and regain a sense of normalcy, she said
Minneapolis police spokeswoman Darcy Horn said that few victims who speak with abuse investigators mention pets as a reason for staying in an abusive relationship, but she added that does not necessarily mean that there isn’t a link between animal and spousal abuse.
Research shows that many abusers follow a pattern of abuse involving all members of a household, including children and pets, said Colleen Schmitt, director of programs at Day One of Cornerstone, which runs the MN-AFAS. But few shelters accept pets, leaving victims with a heart-wrenching dilemma: stay and endure more abuse, or leave, knowing that their batterer might hurt or kill their pet “for revenge or to psychologically control victims,” she said. Some put off moving out, out of fear of leaving their pets behind, she said.
“It’s estimated that about 71 percent of pet owners that entered shelters mentioned that their batterers had also harmed their pets,” she said, adding that the agency’s patchwork of foster homes has struggled to keep up with demand.
According to a database maintained by the Animal Welfare Institute, the state has 26 women’s shelters that offer “sheltering services for the companion animals of domestic violence victims, have a relationship with an entity that does, or provide referrals to such facilities.” Yet none is animal-friendly, according to the database. Others turn away certain species or animals that don’t get along with others.
One national study found that 48 percent of victims stayed with their abusers because they were concerned about what would happen to their pets if they left. Another study, by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, found that nearly three out of four pet-owning women entering a victim’s shelter reported that their batterer had harmed or threatened to harm family pets as a method of intimidation or revenge.
Some states have begun to take notice.
Last year, Alaska became the first state to allow judges to take into account the “well-being of the animal” in custody disputes. Minnesota is among a number of states that allows victims to write their pets in protective orders. Other places have barred chronic animal abusers from owning or coming into contact with pets, an approach that critics say unfairly stigmatizes people who have already paid their debts to society.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan bill winding its way through the U.S. House of Representatives would extend protections for pets of domestic violence victims, making it a crime to intentionally target a domestic partner’s pet with the intent to kill, injure, harass, or intimidate. The PAWS Act, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., would also require abusers to pay the veterinary bills and restitution for harming a pet.
In the case of Javier Pena, the 38-year-old was sentenced last month to three years’ probation after pleading guilty to animal cruelty, records show.
In some cases, the presence of a pet can convince a victim to report the abuse to authorities, according to Althea Pendergast, executive director of HOPE, a domestic abuse shelter in Illinois, which is among a handful of states requiring domestic violence and animal control agencies to share information to help investigate suspected cases of animal abuse.
“If the abuser is holding their pets as hostage, the survivor may share things that she didn’t want to share just to make sure her pets are safe,” she said.