Credit: Darrow Montgomery

One of Natalia Otero’s more memorable cases as the director of D.C. Survivors and Advocates For Empowerment, which runs the District’s only 24/7 emergency domestic violence shelter, was also a case of animal abuse. The batterer had cut all of the hair off of the cat he shared with his partner, a power-control tactic that is a hallmark of domestic violence.

“The animal is a source of control to get into [the survivor’s] psyche,” Otero says. “The cat abuse escalated the situation for [the victim].” A 1999 study found that 87 percent of people who abuse animals do so in front of their partners “for revenge or control.”

It’s not a stretch to infer that in a city where the face of homelessness has changed dramatically in recent years—increasingly becoming a population of young families—demand for pet-friendly shelters would also increase. Yet despite both numbers and anecdotes that indicate the demand for these services should be rising, care providers say the number of requests for animal assistance hasn’t changed much at all.

Those who work in the domestic violence care network are clear about why that is: Survivors still don’t know what their options are.

“A lot of victims of domestic violence want to stay because they think, ‘If I leave, they might hurt or kill my pet.’ They think their pet might be euthanized if they take it to a shelter. And while I can’t say that won’t always be the case, there are definitely other options,” says Meagan Dziura, co-executive director of the Safety Network for Abused Animals and People. The nonprofit helps connect D.C.-area survivors to fosters for their animals.

According to one survey conducted in Utah, threats against a pet’s life caused 20 percent of domestic violence survivors to delay leaving their abusive environment. Laurel Meleski, a program coordinator for the national animal charity RedRover Relief, puts the percentage as high as 48; other studies peg it even higher, at 65 percent.

The Washington Humane Society’s Safe Haven program is the only one of its kind in the District, working in an unofficial capacity with domestic violence shelters (like DC SAFE) and animal nonprofits (like RedRover Relief and SNAAP) to coordinate temporary shelter for the at-risk pets of domestic violence survivors via foster parents, off-site boarding, or a stay at a WHS facility. Each month, Safe Haven Director Zita Macinanti says, Safe Haven handles a “revolving door” of three to five cases.

If that number seems small for D.C.’s only placement program for pets of domestic violence survivors, that’s because it is. DC SAFE, for example, receives more than 900 calls per month from survivors of domestic violence looking for emergency shelter, and one study showed 52 percent of abuse survivors in shelters left their pets with their batterers.

“Any social service is a matter of educating the public and creating [viable] access points,” Otero says. “And in D.C., the process [to shelter a pet] is relatively uncumbersome.”

While it’s hard to precisely gauge the need for these services—collecting data on domestic violence survivors who need pet assistance is notoriously difficult, since few homeless shelters screen clients for animal needs and much of the available data is outdated—Otero says that only a small number of DC SAFE’s clients request animal assistance. The survivors that the nonprofit works with are the District’s highest-risk and need to leave abusive environments in an emergency.

“It’s difficult to get a victim to make a safe plan. They’re hesitant to leave a pet with a friend, they’re reticent to ask for favors,” Otero says. “I also wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t know to ask [shelters] for those resources.” 

In instances like this, domestic violence-specific animal shelters aren’t useful for survivors who don’t have the opportunity to coordinate a pet’s stay ahead of their exit. And general homeless shelters in D.C. don’t accept animals, a result of their existing infrastructure (communal living spaces), lack of funds, and fear of dogs like pitbulls, Otero says. 

While there are certain prohibitive costs associated with opening a homeless shelter to animals—like cages, pet-friendly flooring, and construction costs to build a kennel—there are also a bevy of financial resources available to them. RedRover, for example, has given more than $150,000 to shelters across the country since 2012 to create “co-sheltering” spaces, which Meleski calls “the next logical step in the evolution of services and resources available to domestic violence survivors.” 

Yet RedRover has only received two requests for financial assistance from D.C.-based animal nonprofits in the last four years, both of which were filed through SNAAP on behalf of the Washington Humane Society. The $700 WHS received helped ameliorate the cost of boarding pets off-site, which can run up to $800 per pet each month.

“We’d love to help more, but we can only help if we get a request, and it doesn’t look like we’re getting them,” Melenski says. 

But Otero, Melenski, Dziura, and Macinanti all agree that education is a crucial gap in the care network. In high-turnover social work like domestic violence care, Dziura says, new providers might not have received the training to guide survivors in the right direction.

“If there’s one message that I could scream from a megaphone,” Macinanti says, “it’s that you do not have to stay in an abusive environment or leave your pets behind. There are options.”