Keeping pets, survivors safe in domestic abuse situations

Some people in the middle of these domestic situations are afraid to leave because of what might happen to their pets. (WHAM photo)

(WHAM) - Domestic violence is increasing in Rochester, and many survivors often do not leave their abuser for fear of what could happen to their pet.

A new pet program at Willow Domestic Violence Center aims to help survivors heal by keeping their pets with them.

For many pet owners, a pet is like family. The connection is calming.

“For many, they are the only source of non-judgmental, unconditional love that we have in our life. The only one that doesn’t say, ‘why don’t you just leave an abusive relationship?’” said Amber Lingenfelter with Willow Domestic Violence Center.

Lingenfelter says it's a person's love for their pet that often keeps them from leaving an abusive home. Many abusers use pets to scare survivors into staying.

“Threatening to kill, actually killing the pets. A threat to put their cat in the microwave. A threat to release their dog ‘their way,’ which could mean a myriad of things that could harm the pet.”

The statistics are troubling. One in three women, and one in four men experience domestic violence, and experts say 65 percent of survivors don't leave because of their pets.

Willow's new pet program is working to change that, allowing survivors to bring their pets with them to a safe shelter. There are few programs like it across the country.

“I think of a mom who came into shelter with her four kiddos and she used to come sleep on the floor. That would be the only time she would rest because she had the heart-beat of her dog pressed against the heart-beat of her own. So, it’s how she steadied herself, caught her breath, and could finally rest.”

Lingenfelter says there are volunteer veterinarians on site, and staff members trained to help the animals who also carry the trauma of abuse.

"One dog came in and was terrified of men,” she explained. “He would not go anywhere near a man, would bark the second one was in the room. And now that dogs favorite thing to do is to toss a tennis ball in the backyard with our director."

The pet program’s goal is giving survivors and their pets a chance to escape abuse and heal together.

“We’re rebuilding trust here,” she said. “For many survivors, a pet can be a part of their story of healing and of that moment of deciding to leave.

If you need support at Willow Domestic Violence Center or would like to learn more about the pet program, you can call their hotline at (585) 222-SAFE

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