Photo of a woman pressing her face into her dog's face

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How SafePet helps women leave abusive relationships

Giving animals a secure haven lets people experiencing domestic violence escape without fearing for their pets’ safety

Taryn Rive knew she had to get away from her abusive partner. She also understood that she and her child would have to leave behind everything they had in order to do it. But the idea of fleeing without her beloved cat, Phoebe, stopped her cold. “No shelter that I knew of would take animals [in this situation],” she says. “That’s one of the reasons why I stayed as long as I did.”

When women are being abused, no one, naturally, is thinking about their pets. But new research shows that maybe we need to start doing that. Dr. Amy Fitzgerald, an associate professor in the department of sociology, anthropology and criminology at the University of Windsor, has found that 89 percent of women in abusive relationships reported that their partners had also abused their pets—and more than half of the women had delayed fleeing because they didn’t want to leave their pets in danger.

Why it’s so hard to leave a pet behind
A 2013 study found that the bond between a dog and its owner is close to the one shared between an infant and a parent, and this is no different for people who experience domestic violence. “People suffer all sorts of abuse, and the support that an animal provides is incredible. The thought of having to leave that animal behind is just not an option for many,” says Hayley Glaholt, executive director of Link Toronto, a non-profit that educates people about the links between partner, animal, child and elder abuse.

Glaholt says that abusers often use pets as a way of exerting power and control over their victims in order to keep them there—or to get them to return. “The person will be thinking about leaving their abuser, but research shows the abuser is likely to threaten to harm the animal if they do,” she says. “Pets can be used as a way of keeping a person in line.”

With the convenience of digital technology, the abuser has a clear line of communication to let their victim know exactly what they’re doing to the animal. “With text messaging, all of this can get communicated gruesomely,” says Glaholt. Even when a survivor of domestic violence manages to escape, she will often put herself in danger by returning home to feed and care for the animal.

When Rive finally did escape to a shelter, she was beside herself worrying about Phoebe—and crushed by how much she missed her furry companion. She couldn’t sleep at night, and laid in bed and sobbed in the privacy of her room once her child went off to school in the morning. About once a week, Rive would sneak back to her former house to feed Phoebe and spend a few minutes giving her affection, even though she knew that she was risking her safety, as well as that of her child and the other shelter residents. “It’s a choice that no one should have to make,” says Glaholt. “It’s the choice between their own safety and that of the animal that they love.”

It’s important to ask people in an abusive situation what it is that’s preventing them from leaving, says Glaholt. “If the answer is, ‘I love my pet so much; I can’t leave them with my abuser,’ then we have to help them,” she says. “That problem needs to be solved.” And one solution is SafePet.

How SafePet works
The SafePet program, run by Link Toronto, is designed to help women fleeing domestic violence by finding a safe foster home for their pets for the duration of their stay at a shelter. The program was originally run by the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association, but Link Toronto began overseeing the program in 2017 and is currently partnered with five GTA shelters. “The hope is that the SafePet program will change things so women don’t have to choose,” says Glaholt.

When a shelter client indicates that they have a pet in need of a secure place to stay, they are referred to a SafePet-partnered veterinarian. The client arranges a drop-off time for their pet, and the vet clinic alerts SafePet that they have an animal in need of fostering. While the vet completes the animal’s health exam, SafePet finds a foster home from their list of volunteers. (Prospective fosters undergo a rigorous screening process, and there are currently 30 on file who are ready to help.) The foster then picks up the pet at the vet clinic and cares for the animal. All costs are covered by donations made to Link Toronto.

When the client is ready to leave the shelter and move into transitional housing, SafePet drops the animal back off at the vet clinic, where they are reunited with their owner. “We give the person updates while they’re at the shelter, but they aren’t allowed to see the pet while it’s staying with the foster for safety and confidentiality reasons,” says Glaholt.

What SafePet means for shelters
It’s hard enough to find a shelter space in the city, says Iliana Mena, a family support worker at Ernestine’s Women’s Shelter, a United Way–funded agency and one of the shelters that is partnered with SafePet. Adding a pet into the mix has, in the past, made giving women the support they need virtually impossible. Prior to SafePet’s inception, shelter workers sometimes became impromptu pet foster parents, complicating professional boundaries and elevating safety risks for all parties involved, she says. “Knowing that Link Toronto’s SafePet program is partnered with us gives us peace of mind,” says Mena. “When we have a client fleeing an abusive relationship, there’s a resource that takes into account that all family members—furry companions included—are in need of healing from the impacts of trauma.”

Rive gets choked up thinking back to the moment she first learned about SafePet. “It was absolute relief,” she says. “I felt like I wasn’t abandoning my baby and turning my back on her forever.” Within 24 hours of reaching out to SafePet, she had Phoebe in a secure foster home, getting the love and attention she deserved.

“SafePet probably saved both of our lives, and I’m not sure that I’d be in the place I’m in without the help I received from them,” says Rive from the comfort of the new home she shares with her child, Phoebe and a couple of new feline friends. “Women experiencing domestic violence deserve this kind of help.”

If you’re experiencing violence or abuse, there is help out there. The Assaulted Women’s Helpline offers a free, anonymous and confidential 24-hour telephone and TTY crisis telephone line to all women in Ontario who have experienced any form of abuse. The Ending Violence Association of Canada also provides support and contact information for services across the country. You can also call 211, which offers a variety of support services across Canada, from emergency assistance to counselling and daycare—help is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week in 100 different languages.