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We all know many of the reasons domestic violence victims don’t escape their abusers: fear, a sense of helplessness, and financial dependence among them. But an estimated 40 percent of domestic violence victims say that, among the ties that binds them, is their concern for what will happen to their pets if they leave them behind, as domestic violence shelters in Maricopa County generally don’t allow pets, except for service animals.
That is, until now: In 2015, the Sojourner Center in Phoenix started––as a pilot––the region’s first animal shelter to serve the pets of domestic abuse victims. The Arizona nonprofit, Lost Our Home Pet Rescue, is providing the pet care expertise for Sojourner’s project.
The shelter provides basic daily care, exercise for dogs and cats, and special accommodations for birds, fish and other family pets. The shelter is also where the animals’ owners––victims of domestic abuse––can be with their pets for the therapeutic value of companionship and for simple continuity with an old friend. In early 2016, it housed seven dogs, eight cats, two turtles and one parrot near the building where the residents stay for up to 120 days. After the initial stay residents can move into their own apartments for as long as two years, taking their animals with them.
It seems like a self-evident solution have a shelter for pets so that more victims of domestic violence will seek help, as well as to protect animals likely to be abused if left behind. But in today’s fundraising environment “you have to prove things,” says Teri Hauser, Sojourner Center’s chief advancement officer. “Not only do funders want evidence, but so do program staff members, who must always weigh the value of competing demands for resources.”
As only 3 percent of the domestic violence shelters nationally have kennels and most of them are offsite, others around the country will be watching Sojourner’s results. Good, measurable findings will help spread the idea. The managers of two other shelters, one local and another from Montana, have already visited the Sojourner project and are interested in replicating the idea.
Sojourner has learned a few things along the way, and is making adjustments. For example, staff members initially underestimated the veterinary needs of some animals, including injury treatment, vaccinations, spaying and neutering. One large dog’s role was to protect the woman being abused, and he needed to be retrained to be friendly to strangers. One cat arrived missing an eye.
A new resident of the shelter, a woman in her 30s, said she visits her dog three or four times a day. “I’m stronger having him close by,” she says.
That kind of response is typical, Hauser says.
“For some, animals are as much a part of their family as their kids,” Hauser said. “For healing to occur, you have to include everyone.”
But Sojourner isn’t just relying on those anecdotal stories.
“Everything we do, we want to make it transferable to other shelters, here and national wide,” Hauser said. “We want to be evidence-based.”
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