Pets, the overlooked victims of domestic violence

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Pets feel the stress experienced by humans. Photo: Supplied
Pets feel the stress experienced by humans. Photo: Supplied

According to the NSPCA “a staggering 70% of pet-owning women who were victims of abuse, reported that a pet had been threatened, hurt or killed by their abusers”.

The National Shelter Movement of South Africa (NSMSA) and six other gender-based violence (GBV) organisations, in their joint submission to the Department of Justice and Correctional Services, recommend that animal protection, as it relates to domestic abuse, should be included in the Domestic Violence Amendment Bill.

According to executive NSM member and manager of St Anne’s Women’s Shelter, Joy Lange, since pets are often seen as an extension of the abuse, they must be included.

“Research from the United States reveals that nearly half of women in abusive relationships actually do not want to leave because of their animals. Many would rather stay in an abusive relationship, to ensure their pets’ safety. In some of the examples of case studies I have seen, abusers use pets as a tool to further terrorise and hurt the women.

“In an ideal situation, shelters for abused women should be set up to accommodate at least some of the pets that may be at risk. This would ensure that women are at ease and better able to go through the recovery process, without having to worry about the safety of their pets.”
Joy Lange

“If we consider South Africa’s high rates of domestic and intimate partner violence, we can only assume that there are many pets at risk in this country. This is not something that has really been considered before, especially not in South Africa, where keeping our women safe from harm is already such a challenge. But, the abuse of a family pet can affect victims, not only physically but emotionally as well,” said Lange.

Lange said, however, that a key issue in SA is that since funding for shelters for abused women and their children is already insufficient for the human victims, it is near impossible for shelters to still be able to afford to accommodate their at-risk animals as well.

“This is another reason to include animal safety into the bill, which is currently before Parliament. We need government to urgently improve funding and its commitment to GBV shelters, so that we can help women more holistically, and this may sometimes include keeping their pets safe as well. In an ideal situation, shelters for abused women should be set up to accommodate at least some of the pets that may be at risk. This would ensure that women are at ease and better able to go through the recovery process, without having to worry about the safety of their pets.”

According to Marcelle Meredith, executive director at the NSPCA, abusers may use animal abuse as a form of victim control, often as a threat to compel compliance or to silence a victim. This behaviour may hinder the reporting of domestic violence occurring in the household and may delay potential intervention.

“For women who are in danger and want to escape an abusive home but do not have a safe place for them [pets] or do not want to leave their beloved pet behind, they can contact their local SPCA for assistance with boarding until they find a more permanent solution.

“Remember, the Animals Protection Act protects all animals, and if your abuser breaks this law, the SPCA can help you open a case against them,” said Meredith.

“The NSPCA commends the National Shelter Movement and their partners for bringing up this issue, because the animals are often forgotten, but are far too often collateral damage in the war on women, globally,” said Meredith.

For more information on shelter-related issues, visit www.nsmsa.org.za and for animal issues www.nspca.co.z

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