By SARA ARTHURS
In the past, fear that an abuser would hurt a beloved pet made it less likely a family would flee a home with domestic violence. Now, victims can call for help knowing that their furry friend will be safe and that they’ll someday be reunited.
Open Arms Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Services, Pawsible Angels and Blanchard Valley Veterinary Clinic have created a new partnership with the owner of a shelter location who prefers to be anonymous. If a family calls Open Arms for help with domestic violence, the agency will ensure their pets get examined by a veterinarian, are kept safe and are eventually reunited with their humans.
Yvette Mains, program manager at Open Arms, said it used to be that families would call the hotline seeking shelter, then learn that due to allergies and other concerns, only service animals can be taken into the shelter. Open Arms staff would ask if a relative or friend could care for the animal, and the caller might say she’d call back later.
Often, shelter personnel would learn the victims of violence were trying to “stick it out,” or might be staying in an abusive relationship due to concerns surrounding pet care. Or, Open Arms might not have a way to follow up at all, and wouldn’t know what happened to the caller.
“Maybe they wouldn’t come for shelter,” Mains said.
“I’m a pet owner … I wouldn’t want to leave my animals behind,” she added.
Now, if a victim wants to leave home but has nowhere for her pets to go, the local nonprofit Pawsible Angels will arrange transportation to the veterinary clinic. The veterinarians will examine the animal, see if there’s anything that needs to be treated, and provide vaccinations. The animal will then be taken to the shelter location while Open Arms helps the family find safe housing. The family will have visitation with the animal until they can be reunited as a family.
Mains said the person sheltering the animals wants to keep the location confidential, but ensures “the animals will be protected and taken care of.”
She said the partnership has handled one case so far, which went smoothly.
“It was extremely heartwarming to see the success of the entire operation,” said Michele Frank, CEO of Pawsible Angels, which helps pair people with service or therapy dogs and oversees the animals’ training.
Joanne Fuller is a veterinary social worker at Blanchard Valley Veterinary Clinic, a role that includes helping clients whose pets are seriously or terminally ill, and helping the veterinarians themselves facing “compassion fatigue.” She is the wife of veterinarian Tony Fuller.
Fuller started out in other types of social work and learned that domestic violence victims frequently do not like to leave the home of an abuser as “pets are frequently used as a tool for manipulation.” The abuser may harm the pet, or may threaten to harm the pet, in order to control the victim. She said this is “a difficult situation,” as you want to protect both the animal and the human.
Often in an abusive home, animals’ needs aren’t being met, either, Mains said. So, it’s important that a veterinarian take a look at the animal once it’s removed from the home.
Fuller said there are cases where an abuser might not allow appropriate veterinary care, for financial reasons or to control the victim, so the pet might have health issues. In addition, the veterinarians need to make sure the pets are safe to be around other animals.
Frank said petting an animal releases feel-good chemicals in the brain, and “when we gaze into an animal’s eyes … it’s akin to falling in love with another person. It’s the same chemical release.” That bond is important, and keeps people from feeling isolated, she said.
This is especially important for people leaving a domestic violence situation, where they may be “feeling like they’re worthless, feeling like they’re next to nothing, because that’s what they’ve been told for who knows how long,” she said. Pets provide unconditional love, so it’s important to make sure the pet doesn’t get taken away from them.
Open Arms has been in contact with area law enforcement about the new partnership, so officers responding to domestic violence know they can call Open Arms to figure out the logistics of caring for an animal.
Mains said the idea grew out of discussions about Pawsible Angels’ service dogs providing comfort and support to survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence who need to testify in court. The dogs can provide support if a victim has to testify against an offender, so “they don’t feel alone,” Frank said.
Anyone wanting to contribute to the effort to shelter pets from abusive homes can donate to Pawsible Angels online or mail checks to 308 Lexington Ave., Findlay, 45840.
Open Arms’ crisis hotline, available 24 hours a day, is 419-422-4766.
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