Heartbreaking reason many women don't leave abusive partners

Author
Anna Leask, NZ Herald ,
Section
News,
Publish Date
Monday, 20 May 2019, 6:59AM

New research from Women's Refuge reveals a huge number of women delay leaving abusive relationships because they fear what will happen to their pets. Today we announce the launch of the first Pet Refuge, a service that will remove that barrier for women looking to escape domestic violence.

TRIGGER WARNING: the following account contains descriptions of domestic violence. Please take care.

"When he came home drunk, he would hit or kick our family dog if it got in his way in order to start a fight. I would defend the dog by putting myself in the middle then he would say things like, 'you love that f****n dog more than me. I'll put a bullet between its eyes and yours too if you don't look out'."

These are the words of a real Kiwi woman living in a very real situation.

But it's one we rarely talk about.

New Zealand has the worst reported rate of domestic violence in the developed world and new Women's Refuge survey-based research has revealed that the abuse is not just between humans in these dangerous relationships.

Animals are routinely beaten, tortured, threatened and killed by abusers in a bid to exert dominance and power, to demonstrate force, to manipulate, to induce compliance.

Until now, there has not been any comprehensive research done on animal abuse in the context of family violence in New Zealand.

The Family Violence and Animal Abuse Survey 2018, shared exclusively with the Herald today as part of a three-day series on the issue, aimed to explore victims' experiences of the abuse of their pets and how that influenced their attempts at leaving violent homes.

"One of the things that the piece of research showed us was that we had almost 1000 who responded and of those, more than 50 per cent said that not having somewhere to take their pets made them delay chasing safety," said Women's Refuge chief executive Dr Ang Jury.

"This research is extremely important, despite the accounts of victims being distressing, and highlights that for many women living with abusive intimate partners, animals are not exempt from the abuse taking place in the household.

The first pet refuge for animals living in homes where domestic violence is present has been launched.

"They see themselves as the only thing standing between an abuser and a defenceless animal which they care deeply for… so they stay."

The research was prompted by a call to Jury from KidsCan founder Julie Chapman.

She had an idea, had come into some money and had a shed-load of passion to make something happen.

Chapman wanted to use money left to her by her parents - who both died in 2014 - to buy a block of land and build a pet refuge.

It would be used to house pets owned by victims of domestic violence.

With the pets safe and cared for - they were no longer a barrier to the victim leaving their abuser.

"I said 'that sounds cool, go forth and make it happen and we'll support you in whatever you need us to do'," said Jury.

Chapman had heard about the epidemic of pet abuse within the sphere of family violence.

Chief executive of Women's Refuge, Dr Ang Jury. Photo / Michael Craig
Chief executive of Women's Refuge, Dr Ang Jury. Photo / Michael Craig

"As I delved more into it I realised that there was a gap in service and so that was my lightbulb moment," she said.

Chapman, with the help of her husband Cain and her mother-in-law, purchased the land and the Pet Refuge Charitable Trust was born.

She then set to work alongside the Women's Refuge to get the research rolling.

Many people wouldn't understand the move, but pushing her family money into a project that would help animals was an absolute no-brainer for Chapman.

Her home is a menagerie of rescue animals including eight cats, three dogs and two goats.

The cats are a glorious crew; Layla has no eyes, Noah has a hole in his heart, Camilla is deaf and the others have their quirks too.

Chapman adores them all and would double her paw count if she could.

When she saw the results of the survey, she knew she was doing the right thing.

"The level of sadistic stuff actually blew my mind," she said.

"I expected to see stories of pets being hit and kicked and those kinds of things, but the level of cruelty was beyond anything I could comprehend.

The online survey of domestic violence victims who had experienced a partner abusing or threatening a pet was conducted last year.

Of the respondents,, 53 per cent said they delayed leaving their abuser for fear of their pets' safety and 72 per cent said they would have left their abuser much sooner if there something like Pet Refuge.

Just under 70 per cent said their abuser had threatened to harm or kill an animal and 23 per cent said their abusers killed.

Julie Chapman is the founder of Pet Refuge. Photo / Michael Craig
Julie Chapman is the founder of Pet Refuge. Photo / Michael Craig

The research identified that abusers were motivated to hurt animals to either exert control and intimidation, assert supremacy or silence.

"The affection that victims held for their pets was frequently exploited by intimate partners, who threatened or carried out abuse against victims' pets as a way to demonstrate force and induce compliance," it surmised.

"The belief that an abuser will follow through on a threat towards a pet or farm animal if the victim does not comply with their wishes is a compelling reason to stay, and an absence of viable alternatives for housing or caring for those animals precludes women's seeking of avenues for safety.

The most common threats included threatening to get rid of, harm or kill an animal; threatening to do so in front of children or threatening to force children themselves to kill or harm the pet.

Actual physical, sexual and psychological harm towards pets was also rife across the country.

Victims shared their experiences - some too graphic to publish - within the survey, many voicing for the first time why they did not leave when faced with such atrocious behaviour.

Examples include:

• He threatened to slit the dogs' throats if I left.

• He knew I loved my cat and rat more than life itself... he knew it would always make me come back if he threatened them. And Women's Refuge didn't take pets, so I had no way out.

• Back then I didn't know help existed and I felt if I stayed, I could monitor the situation and be a buffer so his anger wouldn't be taken out on the dogs. I also was scared he'd kill them in retaliation for me leaving.

The research surmised that most victims considered leaving without their animals "unthinkable" and felt they needed to stay to act as a "buffer" between them and the abuser.

The research's main conclusion was that there was a huge need for a tailored service that catered to the pets of family abuse victims.

"I would be hoping that having this sort of facility will break down one of those barriers that women have to finding safety," Jury agreed.

"If we make it work, it should make life easier for women."

Police are also supportive of the shelter.

"Pet Refuge will be key to helping facilitate victims' safety, as the new service will remove one of the many barriers for victims by providing their pets a loving temporary home during times of crisis," said national family violence co-ordinator Senior Sergeant Fiona Roberts.

Construction started on the shelter's shell last week - the location of which will not be made public for safety reasons.

But before it can open for business - hopefully next April - Chapman needs to gather $250,000 in donations to fit the shelter out with everything the pets will need to be comfortable - from bedding to toys, enclosures to play areas and health supplies.

"I know some people will struggle to understand why people don't just put their own safety first, and abandon their pets," Chapman lamented.

"For many people, pets are family - my pets are like my children.

"For victims of family violence, it's an even deeper bond, because animals can be their only source of comfort.

"Let's remove the barrier so we can make it easier for them to leave… I can absolutely empathise, because I had my own experience of family violence in my early 20s. It took me 14 months to get out.

"The whole reason for doing this is to help women and men who are in these situations be able to get out and create a safe place for their pets."

New Zealand's first shelter dedicated to housing pets affected by family violence is being built. Pet Refuge will provide a temporary safe haven for pets, while their owners escape abuse. But, your help is needed to make that happen.

To donate to the shelter build visit: PledgeMe

If you're in danger now:

• Phone the police on 111 or ask neighbours of friends to ring for you.
• Run outside and head for where there are other people.
• Scream for help so that your neighbours can hear you.
• Take the children with you.
• Don't stop to get anything else.
• If you are being abused, remember it's not your fault. Violence is never okay

Where to go for help or more information:

• Women's Refuge: Free national crisis line operates 24/7 - 0800 refuge or 0800 733 843 www.womensrefuge.org.nz 
• Pet Refuge petrefuge.org.nz 
• Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day - 0508 744 633 www.2shine.org.nz 
• Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and Middle Eastern women and their children. Crisis line 24/7 0800 742 584 
• It's Not Ok: Information line 0800 456 450 www.areyouok.org.nz

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