*Last name has been removed to protect privacy
Elizabeth* feels the scar every time she eats. A gash on her lip that took four stitches to repair is a reminder of the many years she endured domestic abuse at the hands of her partner.
For five years, the list of physical scars grew: five concussions, six staples in her head, numerous bite marks and bruises.
Although the physical wounds have mostly healed, she’s just beginning to recover from the mental, emotional and financial abuse she also endured. “It’s a slow process getting back to myself,” she told NationSwell.
But through all of this, she’s had a constant companion who has played a key part in the recovery process so far.
His name is Bebe, and he’s a tuxedo cat.
Elizabeth adopted Bebe from the ASPCA as an apology present the first time her abuser attacked her. She went into the animal shelter with plans to get a kitten. “Something tiny,” she said. But when she stepped into the cat-filled room, one cat immediately gravitated towards her, rubbing against Elizabeth’s black-heeled boots. They quickly fell in love.
Four months ago, Elizabeth’s abuser kicked her out of her home. She decided she wasn’t going back. She took her 2-year-old daughter and the $40 in her pocket and left permanently. At a friend’s apartment, she connected with a domestic violence shelter. Quickly, Elizabeth realized she was leaving behind an important part of her family.
She remembers a wave of worries racing through her thoughts. Will her abuser remember to feed him? Will he hurt Bebe? How can I trust this man with my cat?
After getting connected with the Urban Resource Institute (URI), the largest provider of domestic shelter in New York City, Elizabeth learned that she could bring her cat with her to the shelter.
Within three hours, Bebe and Elizabeth were reunited.
“Once I had Bebe, I knew I was home and I was safe,” she said.
Elizabeth is thankful that she was connected to one of the few domestic violence shelters that welcome pets. In another circumstance, she would have had to bring Bebe to an animal shelter or leave Bebe with her abuser.
And if she chose the latter, Bebe, too, was likely to suffer from abuse. Multiple studies and surveys show a link between domestic abuse and pet abuse. Women in domestic shelters were 11 times more likely to report that their partner had hurt or killed pets compared to a control group of women.
But even more alarming is the fact that women are refusing to seek shelter for fear of abandoning their pets. Surveys show that up to 40% of women report being unable to escape out of fear of what will happen to their pets.
“[Survivors] had risk factors, obstacles preventing them from seeking shelter,” said Nathaniel Fields, the CEO and president of URI. “Part of our work here today is to help understand those obstacles and not judge those obstacles.”
URI believes that by housing pets, it’s one less obstacle for seeking help.
But URI is an outlier when it comes to pets. According to Sheltering Families and Animals Together, there are about 150 shelters that allow pets — an average of three per state.
URI has been providing shelter for pets and families since 2013, and last fall, it opened up the nation’s first shelter built with animals in mind called PALS. Of the nonprofit’s 12 shelters in New York, seven can accommodate pets — everything from dogs to bearded dragons have found a home under its roofs.
Danielle Emery, the director of the PALS program, said she’s seen growing recognition of the importance animals play in domestic violence situations. More shelters are accommodating pets, and more survivors are learning about the options they have when leaving an abuser. Part of her work includes advocating for domestic hotlines to ask questions about pets during the intake process that way women and men know from the start that their pet has options, too.
URI leaders are working with other shelters to adopt similar pet-friendly accommodations and extend the PALS program nationally, said Fields.
But Emery notes that it not as simple as a rule change.
At URI shelters, survivors are connected to veterinarian support, animal behavior specialists and groomers. Carpet is removed, furniture is bought with dogs and cats in mind, and things like play space have to be reimagined in a shelter situation.
For example, at PALS shelter, an indoor pet park was built. Animals have a place to play while survivors can stay safe.
Leaders also see animal abuse as a point of intervention. Summer Dolder, the senior manager at New York City’s Animal Care Centers, oversees the surrender prevention program. People bring their pets to her and her team when it’s the last resort.
“Oftentimes people think that animals coming into the shelter are unwanted, and that’s really not true,” she said. “It’s just people facing acute issues in their life.”
And one of the many issues Dolder sees is people are experiencing a form of domestic violence.
While Dolder and her team work with the person to plan the best course of action for his or her pet, whether that’s an animal shelter, temporary foster or something else, they’re also there for the human. Dolder, who has worked at the shelter for six years, has seen her work as a point of intervention for humans.
Recently, Dolder had a woman come in with her deceased cat looking for after-life services. Through intake interviews, Dolder’s team quickly learned that the cat had died because of the woman’s partner. They helped the woman with her cat, helped file a police report and get the woman connected to other resources.
“It’s turned into as much of a prevention program for the animals as it is for the humans,” she said.
Dolder makes sure the help doesn’t stop there. The shelter helps to supply places like URI with the resources they need. Litter, pet food, crates, toys, leashes.
And even cat scratchers.
“He’s been scratching up the whole apartment,” Elizabeth laughed. Dolder’s team will send over a scratcher for Bebe this week. It’s moments like this that remind Elizabeth that she’s no longer alone.
“There are days that I don’t even know what to do with myself because I have never felt this free.”