The Third Victim: Pet Refuge
New Zealand is a little island paradise with hellish domestic violence statistics; Suli Autagavaia digs into the situation to highlight a third party often neglected in family violence discussions.
Content warning: this feature includes discussions of domestic violence.
Why don’t they just leave? It’s a question that unhelpfully haunts our discourse around domestic abuse. It’s well known that many stay in abusive relationships because of the threat of violence against them should they attempt to leave — what’s less discussed is the all-too-common threat to kill a beloved animal. It’s called pet abuse, an area of family domestic violence that is little known or talked about.
According to the 2018 National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuges (NCIWR) research report, Pet Abuse as part of Intimate Partner Violence, 53% of people surveyed delayed leaving family violence out of fear for their pet’s safety. To control their victim, perpetrators create fear in the home where the victim reluctantly stays in order to prevent or minimise the risk of harm, injury, or death to their family pet. Furthermore, 23% reported having an animal killed by their partner. Another New Zealand study confirmed “approximately 90% of threats and actual harm to a pet or other animal were made by partners”. Being hit, punched, kicked, thrown, hung, verbally abused, choked, shook, and starved are a few examples of pet abuse.
Living in a domestic violence environment is as emotionally damaging for a child as it is for an animal. Like a child, an animal exhibits fearful behaviors such as acting out, escaping, hiding under the bed, nervousness, incontinence, hypervigilance, staying close to the victim, being aggressive to the perpetrator, and depression. Whether the direct target of abuse or a witness to loved ones being abused, animals are also victims in this violent environment.
The NCIWR study also revealed 22% of children witnessed pet abuse. Research has found that exposure to pet abuse increases the risk of children becoming victims or abusers themselves. Moreover, a seven-year study across three metropolitan areas found that abusing animals was a significant factor for predicting future abusive behavior.
So, why don’t they just leave?
A more revealing answer to this question is the NCIWR study finding that “73% of respondents would have found it easier to leave if there was a shelter offering temporary accommodation for their pets”.
Women Refuges around New Zealand do not accept pets and a victim not being able to take their beloved animal with them to safety is a barrier to leaving. It is an enormous responsibility for women to secure the safety for themselves, their children, and their pets; for many, the decision to leave an animal behind is unbearable.
What do you do when you inherit financial assets? If you’re KidsCan CEO Julie Chapman, you build a pet refuge shelter! As if running a national charity tackling child poverty wasn’t enough, Julie saw a dire need in the community and committed her inheritance to help resolve it. Who does that? A woman whose heart and bank account are aligned with a life purpose to help relieve hardship for humans and animals alike.
Julie was heavily impacted by the knowledge that people delayed leaving domestic violence out of fear for their pets’ lives. “I felt driven to help remove one of the major barriers to leaving violent situations,” she explains.
In 2021, she opened the doors to Aotearoa’s first refuge shelter dedicated to temporarily housing pets affected by domestic violence, Pet Refuge. Its capacity of up to 75 animals at a time, or 300 per year, provides a safe haven for the pets of those who are leaving an abusive relationship. This shelter is a game changer.
Pet Refuge has partnered with Australia’s RSPCA to adapt their Safe Beds for Pets initiative here in NZ. The program temporarily houses and cares for animals in family violence situations until they can be reunited with their humans in a safe environment. Having a beloved pet in a safe, undisclosed location makes relocating an easier task for those escaping abuse. Moreover, a personal welfare plan for each animal, including medical services and a state-of-art refuge in a peaceful location, aids the recovery of an animal who has suffered abuse. It is a heavenly holding pen before they are reunited with their human parent.
This vital service offers those escaping abuse the opportunity to take the next step — to seek alternative accommodation and finally leave. However, the struggle to find rental accommodation that accepts pets is yet another barrier to overcome. Julie urges the New Zealand government to make it easier for people and their pets to find housing.
“It’s such a challenge and we need to come up with a solution that makes it easier for landlords to say yes to pets. Whether that be some kind of insurance or pet bond or changing tenancy laws.”
What You Need to Know About Pet Abuse
Julie emphasizes the fact that New Zealand has the highest reported rate of family violence in the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development].
“New Zealand also has the second highest rate of pet ownership globally. Combining these two factors has created a real problem. Women and their pets are suffering every day.”
Many of the animals Julie sees arrive at the shelter have been physically and emotionally abused; “used as tools”.
“They are frightened and nervous, particularly around men. Pets are often used to control or intimidate. I’ve heard terrible, terrible stories of pets being hurt or killed as a way of showing power and control.”
She describes one story that particularly disturbed her: “A family where the father bought his child a puppy, then held a mock court session before taking the dog outside and shooting it in front of the kids.”
Real stories like this reinforce the undeniable need for a pet refuge shelter and Julie’s purpose. “How can we not do something?”
How to help
You can donate $25 a month to give a pet a safe bed. The Safe Beds for Pets program is dedicated to providing temporary shelter and care for vulnerable pets. A monthly donation helps cover shelter expenses such as a safe place to sleep at night, heating, bedding, enrichment and exercise, transport, vet healthcare, animal behavior therapy, expert animal carers, and case workers who are a vital part of the shelter.
Visit www.petrefuge.org.nz for more information on donating.
At the time of writing, Julie is planning the construction of a second pet refuge shelter to meet increasing demand for its services. A perfect storm of Covid-19 isolation in violent home environments combined with the stresses of job losses and rising cost of living has further fuelled the terror and desperation of victims to leave. Julie is answering the call — her life purpose is to alleviate the suffering of humans and animals.
We can’t ignore what we know now, hopefully this knowledge will help spur action and support. Why don’t they just leave? There are many complicated, heartbreaking answers to that question. But through the existence of initiatives like Pet Refuge, the options for those fleeing abuse are expanding.
If You Need Support
Women’s Refuge Crisis Line
Support and information, free from any phone, 24 hours a day: 0800 733 843
Confidential domestic abuse helpline, free from any phone, 9am to 11pm every day: 0508 744 633
Are You OK?
Practical support for safety planning: www.areyouok.org.nz
Animal shelter for pets affected by domestic violence: www.petrefuge.org.nz
- Jury, A., Thorburn, N., Burry, K. (2018). Pet Abuse as part of Intimate Partner Violence. National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuges
- Roguski, M. (2012). Pets as Pawns: The Co-existence of Animal Cruelty and Domestic Violence. The RSPCA and Women’s Refuge: Women’s Refuge, New Zealand
- Walton-Moss, B. J., Manganello, J., Frye, V., & Campbell, J. D. (2005). Risk factors for intimate partner violence and associated injury among urban women. Journal of Community Health, 30, 377-389
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