NEW YORK – When her abusive husband left for work last fall, she grabbed her kids, her dog and her bags, only to run up against a heart-wrenching obstacle: None of the city’s more than 50 domestic violence shelters would accept the pet.
“Should I still leave?” the 34-year-old woman asked herself before fleeing and ultimately finding a foster home for her Chihuahua.
Now, after months apart, the family and Peppah the Chihuahua recently moved into the city’s first pet friendly domestic violence shelter, one of a growing number across the country that address a common reason victims are reluctant to leave – they don’t want to leave their pets behind.
Ranging from urban apartments to Western ranches, their numbers have shot up from four in 2008 to at least 73 now, with 15 more planned, according to Allie Phillips, a former Michigan prosecutor who has become a leading advocate for such shelters.
Behind the nondescript walls of a New York City building that quietly harbors about 120 adults and children, “pet-friendly apartment” signs mark units outfitted with such special features, such as a dog run built in a side alley, intended to keep residents from having to walk their pets on local streets, lest their batterers learn where they are.
Because of safety concerns, the Associated Press is withholding residents’ identities, except for information they agreed could be used.
The shelter, run by the Urban Resource Institute, began allowing cats and pocket pets like gerbils and hamsters in June and dogs last month, with veterinary and other help from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and a Purina PetCare Co. donation for the dog run.
Animal welfare and domestic violence groups have found common cause in recent years amid growing interest in connections between animal cruelty and family abuse. Those links have spurred about two dozen states to start letting pets be included in protective orders since 2006; others are considering it, including New Hampshire and Ohio.
Studies have found about 70 percent of domestic violence survivors say their batterers also threatened, injured or killed their pets, and 25 to 50 percent say they delayed fleeing out of fear of what would happen to animals left behind, said psychologist Randall Lockwood, an ASPCA senior vice president.
“The pets that are normally a source of comfort in families can become targeted, particularly if the abuser sees that as a way to get the power or control they’re looking for without inflicting harm directly on the child or spouse,” he said.
Pamela Isaac knows that firsthand.
Her drug-using boyfriend in the late 1990s beat her and used to dangle her cherished cat out the window to scare her into doing whatever he wanted, she said. When she ran to a neighbor’s apartment to escape his choking her, she said, he set her apartment ablaze with the cat inside. The animal died from its injuries.
She shied from dating until 2012 and found herself with a man whose initial kindness disintegrated into drug-fueled abuse, she said. She decided to flee last fall with her three cats.
Now she, Lucy, Rikki and Gizmo live in a compact one-bedroom apartment at the Urban Resource Institute shelter; she authorized the use of her name. Taking care of them gives her a sense of purpose in moments of doubt, she said.
“That’s very healing for me,” said Isaac, 58, an art teacher. “We take care of each other.”
Around the country, pet friendly shelters are as varied as the Women’s Center of Mid-Minnesota, which has housed dozens of cats and dogs over decades in a six-bedroom house in Brainerd, and 5-year-old Littlegrass Ranch, which finds short-term safe houses for abused women and their horses in the Texas hill country.
Founder Christie Kitchens says when she was thinking about what she needed to take with her when leaving an abusive relationship long ago, “everything else was optional but the horse.”
Other organizations house pets or arrange foster homes while domestic violence survivors stay elsewhere. In Los Angeles, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Animal Safety Net program has housed more than 330 such pets since 1998, some from as far as Florida.
Pet friendly shelters have faced questions about whether animals are taking some focus and resources from abused people, though advocates say they’re only responding to the priority some clients place on their pets.
For Peppah’s owner, nothing can top having her three children and the dog together again.
“The kids – when finally we got here, they didn’t even want to go to school that day,” she said. “They just wanted to stay home and be with her.”