Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Shelter for pets in domestic violence

Mpls. to shelter other victims of domestic violence: Pets

Minneapolis police will let people who fear for their pets board them at Animal Control.

By DAVID CHANEN, Star Tribune
Last update: December 7, 2009 - 11:24 PM

As a Minneapolis woman planned to leave her abusive boyfriend a few months ago, she made a desperate call to the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley.

She feared she wasn't the only one in danger.

"She's my sweetheart -- I love that cat," she cried into the phone, according to a recording investigators saved. "He said he will kill it and put it in a bag. I'm taking this very seriously."

Senior investigator Keith Streff of the Humane Society said the woman was one of many who have delayed leaving an abusive situation out of fear for their beloved pet's safety.

As part of its continuing domestic violence prevention initiative, the Minneapolis Police Department will start a program next month to allow people to board pets at the city's Animal Control facility for five days at no charge while the owners find a new home.

Only a handful of law enforcement agencies in the United States offer such a service, even though several studies now show that up to 75 percent of victims reported that their abusers threatened, hurt or killed family pets.

Carol Arthur, executive director of the Minneapolis based Domestic Abuse Project, said the research has "finally caught up to what we've been hearing anecdotally for years." A pet is often the sole emotional support for a person in an abusive relationship, she said, giving the victim unconditional love.

Link in chain of violence

"This is why the abuser will threaten to harm the animal to get compliance," she said. "This is one big barrier preventing a person from leaving."

Only a couple of domestic violence organizations in Minnesota, including a woman's shelter in Brainerd, have a program to help victims with pets. Cornerstone, a domestic violence agency in Bloomington, partners with a veterinarian to house pets. They average about a dozen each year, including gerbils and snakes.

Under the new Minneapolis program, police officers who respond to domestics can immediately bring a victim's pet to Animal Control.

Several animal rescue groups have volunteered to foster the pets if the owner needs more than five days. Only the person who placed the pet will be allowed to visit, but they have to sign a form establishing ownership.

"This program is ahead of the curve and definitely should be a model for police departments, to recognize the link between animal and domestic abuse," said Allie Phillips, vice president of public policy for the American Humane Association in Denver.

She estimated that about 700 groups in the United States have some kind of pet kenneling option for domestic violence victims.

Minneapolis doesn't expect to be overwhelmed with kennel requests, so costs for the program are expected to be minimal, said Dan Niziolek, manager of Animal Care And Control. The program will be available 24 hours a day.

"We look at violence in the community, and it starts at home," he said. "We can curb some of it through this program."

The Police Department's domestic violence prevention pilot initiative started in the Fifth Precinct in 2008. The department investigated 18,500 domestic calls in 2007, but many didn't result in arrests. To build better cases, officers began putting suspects in squad cars, reading them their rights and asking questions with the squad camera rolling.

Officers also began doing extensive interviews with alleged victims at the scene and asking them to write a report.

In a year, convictions rose 25 percent. The program, developed by a coalition of social workers and law enforcement and animal humane officials, is now used in all five precincts.

"Cops are pretty astute about what's going on in a home and [while] talking to the victim can pick up fears," said First Precinct Inspector Kris Arneson, who headed up the initiative. "That includes concerns about animals and children."

The Green Bay, Wis., police department has helped assure the safety of more than 50 pets since it started a kenneling program four years ago, said officer Sharon Hensen.

She said she's heard horrific stories, including one involving a man who threw a cat against a wall, breaking all four legs. In a survey of the victims in that city, 80 percent said the abuser hurt or threatened to hurt their pets.

The Minneapolis City Council approved the kennel program last month, with several members praising Niziolek, Arneson and others for their proactive approach to domestic violence. Arthur said Minnesota continues to be a leader in violence intervention since state residents built the first women's shelter in the United States.

Streff, of the Humane Society, shook his head as he listened again last week to the telephone call from the woman pleading on behalf of her cat. He said it was the most chilling domestic abuse-related call he's heard in 22 years as an investigator. But two weeks ago he received an e-mail from a woman whose abuser had kicked her miniature pinscher, breaking its back.

"When they reach out for help about their pets, they are usually right at the brink," he said. "But who knows what might happen after that?"

David Chanen • 612-673-4465

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