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Including Pets in Conversations About Domestic Violence

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When people think of domestic violence, they usually don't think about violence on household pets.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and the Humane Society Naples and the Shelter for Abused Women and Children in Naples have partnered to raise awareness of the connection between domestic violence and animal abuse.

WGCU’s Andrea Perdomo spoke with Humane Society Naples Executive Director Sarah Baeckler-Davis about how animals can fall victim to domestic violence.

Here is a transcript of their conversation:

Perdomo:
So October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. How does animal abuse fall under the umbrella of domestic violence?

Baeckler-Davis:
We see a really important link between animal abuse and other forms of domestic violence. Often when there's violence in a home in a family situation, if there's an animal there, there's probably going to be violence either actually happening or threatened against animals.

Perdomo:
Has animal abuse and abuse of people always been synonymous with domestic violence?

Baeckler-Davis:
I think that's an evolving area of study. In the past decade or so there’s been a lot of energy around that because animal abuse can be a precursor for other violence or a signifier of other violence. So it's a growing field, but it's something that a lot of professionals are talking about in a lot more detail now.

Perdomo:
Even for me, when I saw that the Naples Women's Shelter was partnering with the Humane Society, I didn't immediately make that link. What are some of the challenges that you guys face trying to bridge that connection?

Baeckler-Davis:
So there's a couple of things. In addition to that link where you may see animal abuse happening in a home, and that could be an indicator of other kinds of violence. We also know that often times people who are in a violent situation or are being abused are hesitant to leave if they have pets in the home. So often times, and it's generally women, will be fearful to leave because they don't want to leave their cat or dog. So we work with the shelter in order to be able to make that happen for them to keep both the animal and the humans who need protection safe.

Perdomo:
What do you think has changed in society that has included animals into this sphere of domestic violence?

Baeckler-Davis:
I think more and more we're considering and acknowledging, or being willing to acknowledge out loud that animals are part of our family. As far as the law is concerned, they are generally considered property, but they really are more than that and we know that. My dog sleeps in my bed with me, and many people would give anything for their animals. And so, because we're starting to be more comfortable talking about how these beings really are a part of our families, I think that's propelling the conversation about the fact that they're potentially at risk in a domestic violence situation as well.

Perdomo:
You touched on this a little bit earlier, but how is it that animals can be used in domestic violence scenarios?

Baeckler-Davis:
I think abusers can use them as pawns and take advantage of that power dynamic and that emotional connection. Often our animals are, because they're like our family, they are sometimes the closest bond that a member of the family has. So there's a real power dynamic potential there to use them as pawns. Often people who are being abused, won't leave if the animal is going to be in danger.

Perdomo:
Can you go over the characteristics of animal abuse? Where's the line or how do you guys identify that? Or what are some of the signs that you guys see as animals come in here?

Baeckler-Davis:
It's a gray area, for sure. Certainly physical violence against an animal is considered cruelty, but the law also requires you to provide shelter, and water, and food and a safe environment. And it's kind of gray in there where you get into the point of what constitutes cruelty or what you would potentially be in trouble with the law for.

Perdomo:
Kind of touching on that, what happens to a person who is convicted of abusing an animal?

Baeckler-Davis:
It depends on the level of the offense and what the conviction is. It can rise the level of a felony, which would mean significant jail time. Sometimes it also can include losing access to the animal. They'll often be confiscated in that process. And sometimes it will mean that the person at issue would have to agree not to own animals in the future.

Perdomo:
Yeah, that was going to be my follow-up question. I was going to ask you once a person has been identified as an abuser, are they essentially blacklisted? Is there like a statewide registry or something?

Baeckler-Davis:
There are a couple of efforts to create registries. They've not succeeded for a number of reasons. We have internal lists and I think shelters try to work together to kind of make sure that we are looking out for each other in terms of adoptions.

Perdomo:
And do you know if, let's say that there's a situation in which a person is being abused and there are animals in the home. Are there any efforts to keep both the pets and the victim together?

Baeckler-Davis:
Yeah. So the Shelter for Abused Women and Children here in Naples has a kennel. And it's unique in that the abuse victim can leave with their animal and stay together with their animal. And again, that really helps the healing and the bonding. So if they don't have space, we always take them here and hold on to them while the family deals with what they need to deal with. But our shelter here, the domestic violence shelter is amazing and that they really work to keep every piece of the family together if possible.

Perdomo:
I did also see on the Humane Society's website, that veterinarians are also required to report cases in which they believe that abuse or neglect may be being perpetuated.

Baeckler-Davis:
It is a violation of the law to abuse animals. It can be a felony sometimes if it's aggravated and we train our veterinarians to look for those signs, for sure. It can get tricky with liability in terms of reporting it. But I don't hesitate to report cruelty anytime we h ave a suspicion of it.

Perdomo:
So what protections are currently in place to prevent animal abuse?

Baeckler-Davis:
So we have county level regulations and also state level regulations that requires things like providing shelter, providing safety, providing food and water. Here in Collier County, it's against the law to tether an animal without watching over them. So you can't chain your dog to a tree, for example. There's quite a bit in place for animals. Of course, we would always like more protection for them.

Perdomo:
What are some of those maybe expansions on those protections that the Humane Society of Naples would like to see in place?

Baeckler-Davis:
I think one thing that's really important is to, again, include animals in domestic violence situations, for example, a protective order. So when you have a protective order to protect the victim against the abuser to include animals in those orders. I think that would make a really significant step towards helping people who are abused feel comfortable leaving.

Perdomo:
How can stopping animal abuse affect maybe other issues? I feel like they're all kind of interconnected.

Baeckler-Davis:
There's so much overlap with human welfare in general and our animals and how we treat them. We see when we can work with kids to build empathy and to help them get to know animals and think of them as other beings and members of the family, we see changes kind of ripple out. So a kid who's connected with an animal as a child in a positive way is less likely to perpetrate any kind of violence against animals generally. But they're more likely to advocate when they see something that isn't okay with them.

Andrea Perdomo is a reporter for WGCU News. She started her career in public radio as an intern for the Miami-based NPR station, WLRN. Andrea graduated from Florida International University, where she was a contributing writer for the student-run newspaper, The Panther Press, and was also a member of the university's Society of Professional Journalists chapter.