Heather McElhatton: I’m Heather McElhatton and this is a Beautiful World, bringing you inspirational stories from around the globe.
Rita Garza: We really are promoting the re-definition of family. What it means to be a family, and in crisis how to stay together as a family?
Heather McElhatton: That’s Rita Garza works at URI, Urban Resource Institute, one of the largest resource providers for domestic abuse victims in New York City. They run shelters where men and women can escape violent relationships and rebuild their lives. In 2013 Rita helped launch a new program that welcomes a previously banned family member into domestic abuse shelters. The program is called: URIPALS
Rita Garza: And it stands for “People and Animals Living Safely.” We allow victims of domestic violence come into shelter with their pet, and live with their pets.
Heather McElhatton: It’s estimated that over 3 million people are living with domestic violence, and one in every four women experience domestic violence. Out of that group, an enormous 25% say they stay or return to their abusive relationship because they do not want to abandon their pets, less that 3% of domestic violence shelters will allow abuse victims to bring pets.
Rita Garza: It was really gut wrenching to hear some of the stories of the pets that hand been left behind, for me that really was a knife in my heart because there’s something we can do about it. There’s something we can do about this issue.
Heather McElhatton: Many people think of domestic abuse as physical violence, but the truth is its far more complicated and layered than that. Abusers often use emotional, economic and psychological manipulation to force victims to stay in violent relationships, including threats to other family members… and pets.
Rita Garza: We heard heartbreaking stories from our clients about the type of abuse that would be directed at beloved pets. Very physical violence. It’s really hard to talk about, but I think it’s important for people to know that this happens all the time. If a dog is kicked or punched or thrown against a wall in the midst of a domestic violence situation, or if a pet is threatened, like one of our clients had her cat placed in the microwave, with the hand on the knob to threaten to turn the knob on – to have that ultimate power and control over another person and to intimidate a person, those are exactly the kinds of things happening every day.
Heather McElhatton: Rita says that by talking about these problems, we can help build new solutions. When we shed light on what’s actually happening in victim’s lives, we can rebuild outdated services that exclude animal family members
Rita Garza: And so when we look at how do we help people heal and move forward? By absolutely keeping their loved ones together. So when victims of domestic violence come into shelter, they’re going to come with their children and their pet, and it’s not a choice. We wouldn’t ask someone to choose between their children, so why would we ask them to choose between their four-legged children?
Heather McElhatton: But bringing animals into human shelters has additional challenges.
Rita Garza: So the pet goes through what I call a “bumper-to-bumper” health check, and they are also evaluated if they were part of the abuse, do they need a behaviorist to come in and help them heal?
Heather McElhatton: These services are provided free of charge to the shelter by the ASPCA – which Rita says makes the entire program possible.
Rita Garza: Programs like ours are absolutely necessary, because what I know about society today, is that we are better people when we have pets in our lives and that when we care for animals and when we expand our ability to love, in that way, we are a better society.
Heather McElhatton: If you’d like to help foster domestic abuse pets, you can contact your local animal shelter or ASPCA and ask for the domestic violence services. If you yourself need to find a shelter that takes pets, visit: www.safeplaceforpets.org to find off site housing and care for people and pets who need a safe escape from domestic violence. I’m Heather McElhatton, and this is A Beautiful World.
Rita Garza: my idea of A Beautiful World is animals and people living harmoniously and without abuse.