SafePet program helps keep pets safe while victims of abuse seek help

Original Article: CTV News Toronto  |  Katherine DeClerq  |  July 6, 2018  |

Research shows that more than half of victims of abuse say they delayed leaving their partners due to concern for their pets’ safety, which is why an organization called SafePet Program is offering a free foster program to those using shelters in Toronto.

Many shelters offering support to victims of domestic abuse do not allow pets unless they are registered service animals. The SafePet program arranges foster homes for these pets, ensuring they are well taken care of while the victim receives the support they need.

SafePet is the flagship program of a non-profit called Link Coalition Toronto, an organization that educates others about the link between domestic violence, child abuse, elder abuse and animal abuse.

Hayley Glaholt, the executive director of Link Coalition Toronto, said she learned of the connection between domestic violence and animal abuse while doing her master’s degree in Boston.

“I knew that I wanted to start an organization like this at some point,” she told CTV News Toronto. “I knew nothing like this existed in Toronto, so I took what I learned in the States and just got it started here, because I knew there was a need for it.”

“We want women to know (that) if not having somewhere to take their pet is the reason to stay in an abusive situation, we can help them. We can remove that barrier for them.”

SafePet currently has 15 volunteers who will foster pets while victims of domestic abuse are at a shelter. The animals are then returned to their owners once they are back on their feet.

“That bond between people and their pets is extremely powerful, and so many of our fosters just want to help because they know if it came to them and they had to make a decision between their safety and the safety of their pets, it’s an impossible decision to make,” Glaholt said.

Dan, who wished to only be identified by his first name, is one of the volunteers. He said he was shocked a program like SafePet didn’t exist before in the city.

“It’s one of those things that you don’t think about,” he said. “You take for granted that something is going to be done with the pet in instances of domestic abuse.”

The program provides fosters with a few treats and toys, but they are asked to supply day-to-day necessities like food or cat litter.

“This isn’t just helping pets,” Dan attested. “It’s helping women escape domestic violence. It’s helping men escape domestic violence.”

Research conducted by the University of Windsor shows that approximately 89 per cent of women staying at shelters reported their pets had been mistreated by their partners.

“What we found was that a number of them felt responsible for their pets, so they saw similarities in how they were abused and how their pets were abused,” said Amy Fitzgerald, associate professor of criminology at the University of Windsor. “And so they didn’t want to leave their pets with their abuser.”

“Basically it is an attempt to protect their pet.”

Fitzgerald became interested in studying the relationship between animals and violence between intimate partners after volunteering at an animal shelter. While there, she noticed that many women were relinquishing their pets, indicating they were doing so because either their partner was making them or they were concerned their partner was going to abuse the pet.

Fitzgerald said that of the women she spoke to while conducting her research at shelters, 60 per cent had to eventually leave their pets with their partners.

“A third of them reported they were considering returning to their partner, or their abuser, because he still had their pets and was using the pets as leverage to get them back,” she said. “It really troubles me, especially not knowing how many women may be out in the community who may be remaining in abusive relationships because of concern for their pets. Because they can’t take their pets to a shelter.”

The SafePet program was launched in December 2017. Included in the services they provide is free veterinary care for the pets in their foster system.

Program users are asked to contribute financially if they are able to do, but if they can’t, they will not be charged.

The program is running at four domestic violence shelters in Toronto.

-With files from CTV News Toronto's Michelle Dube