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Efforts on rise to protect pets from domestic violence

New Hampshire Sunday News

April 05. 2014 11:12PM

Lisa LeBlanc, executive director of A Safe Place in Portsmouth, knows first-hand the impact of abuse in a home. (COURTESY)

Family pets often end up on the front lines of domestic violence.

That's why protecting pets has become part of the mosaic of services offered to abuse victims. Many animal shelters in New Hampshire partner with crisis centers to provide temporary housing for animals when a victim has to leave home in a hurry.

And this year, the Legislature is considering a bill that would include household animals under domestic violence protection laws.

Domestic violence experts all have horror stories about family pets that were abused or killed. For Lisa LeBlanc, executive director of A Safe Place in Portsmouth, it happened early in her 20-year career.

In one case, a father killed a pet dog with a knife, she said. "And the mom and the kiddos saw all of that. He did not have to raise a hand, did not have to raise his voice. He did not have to do anything. But they knew that they had better do what this person said."

Franklin Police Chief David Goldstein recalled a case early in his career that has always stuck with him. The victim's abusive boyfriend had taken out his rage on her beloved pet, killing it.

"It was a beautiful Saint Bernard," he said.

Peggy O'Neil is executive director of WISE, which provides services to victims of domestic and sexual violence in the Upper Valley. She said such stories are all too common.

"Pets, unfortunately, are often hurt and abused, if not killed, as a way to exert control and intimidation and fear in a relationship," she said. "It sends a very powerful message to somebody when their pet is hurt."

And fear of what might happen to their pets keeps many victims in their abusive situations, experts say. "It's a hard choice to make, to leave your pets behind," said O'Neil.

While some states have pet-friendly shelters, New Hampshire does not - although a Concord-based crisis center is working on plans to create one.

Paula Wall, program manager at Crisis Center of Central N.H., said her agency is "in the very early exploration stages of what we can to accommodate victims who are leaving with their pets."

"What we are recognizing is that (some) people who have pets just aren't going to be calling because they know our shelters aren't pet-friendly."

They may not realize that advocates will help them find emergency housing for their pets while they take care of themselves and their children,Wall said.

Agencies rely on local animal shelters, veterinarians, boarding kennels and volunteers to provide emergency housing for pets of victims in crisis.

"I've personally taken dogs home because moms didn't want to leave their pets behind any more than they wanted to leave their children behind," LeBlanc said. "Sometimes that was the only light that they had in their life."

Deborah Turcott is executive director of Upper Valley Humane Society, which provides emergency boarding for up to two weeks free of charge in such situations. Sometimes the shelter includes free spaying or neutering and other medical care for the animal.

"There's so much going on for an individual in that circumstance that most of the time they're just really pleased to know that someone who's qualified is caring for their pet," Turcott said.

Families are encouraged to come and visit their pets. "We'll give them a room where they can sit and spend time," she said.

Lisa Dennison, executive director of New Hampshire SPCA in Stratham, said her shelter has cared for the animals of abuse victims for up to a month free of charge.

"We have reunited many, many pets," Dennison said. "That's the ultimate goal.

"You don't want the animal at risk. You don't want the person at risk, and you don't want the person who's already suffering traumatic loss on so many levels to also lose their best friend."

There's a growing recognition among social service agencies "that human and animal welfare is so connected," Turcott said.

That point was driven home at a community forum hosted by WISE on Thursday in Lebanon, in a story written by an abuse survivor that was read aloud.

The woman wrote about her gentle and "brave" dog, Bella, who wound up on the receiving end of her abuser's violence.

"The whole scene was like a giant fire untamed and imploding, enveloping all three of us."

Afterwards, she wrote, "Bella and I sat in the driveway for a good hour. I promised Bella that day I would never let anything happen to her ever again. That promise I kept."

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If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic or sexual violence, call the statewide toll-free hotline: 1-866-644-3574. Advocates are available to provide support, information and referrals 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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