But Messier, like many other women who experience abuse, initially found excuses to stay. "When you are abused you live in fear and shame and silence". You don't want to tell anyone", Messier says. She was worried about leaving her pets behind, and this became her rationale.
At the time, she had a good job as an investigator for Canada's Revenue agency. She lived alone with her partner, loyally supporting him despite his drug habit, which she hoped he would kick. Her pets became her only companions when her partner was out binging on cocaine. "It struck me how attached we become to animals when we are attacked".
Messier, 53, finally got out of the relationship nine years ago. She was emotionally traumatized, but physically unscathed (apart from a cut lip during her partner's final violent fit before she left him). Her pets were not so lucky. Her German shepherd, Pepper, died of a heart attack caused by stress soon afterward. The cat lived on, but with a permanent limp in the leg. Messier says that watching them became a daily reminder of the trauma. "They are like kids: innocent and they love you. I felt their pain in my heart because I couldn't protect them," she says.
Messier wondered if there were other women who shared her story. She called a local shelter and quickly discovered that her experience was common. Women said they had postponed leaving abusive partners because they had nowhere to take their pets, and felt that they couldn't leave them behind.
The call was an epiphany for Messier. On February 14, 2008 (choosing Valentine's Day was deliberate) she founded "AnimEscale", a charity that hostels animals belonging to women escaping abuse.
"Domestic violence" is the term used in English, Messier says. "It's so accurate, because it expresses the "collateral damage that comes with abuse. The whole household suffers". She says "as the violence grows, the attachment to their animals grows. I didn't want them [the women] to stay because of the animals".
Messier initially hosteled women's pets in her Montreal area condo. Then, partially to accommodate her growing household, she moved to a house in the countryside in the Lanaudiere area of Quebec along the St. Lawrence river.
In her second year she hosteled 39 animals, including a mouse.
This year she has accepted 51 animals but had to decline 146 more. Right now, she has a rabbit, two dogs, two birds, and four cats. On the way is another cat and a parrot. She'd love to take more, but it is personally expensive . She has some private funding, but most of the expenditures come from her own pocket (about $30,000), and she is living on disability payments because of a broken collarbone. "It is frustrating having women plead with me to take their animals and I can't."
The stories she tells are heartbreaking, even chilling. One night, very late, she was awakened by a woman who had gone to a shelter with her four children.She asked Nicole to take care of her animals. The budgie cage was broken. The mother said the father had smashed it. Her little girl was holding a plastic bag with two fish in it . The mother apologized about the bag, explaining that the father had smashed up the little girl's acquarium.
Messier calls the pets she fosters "her little blessings". She listens to the women's stories too. "They want to be listened to. I don't give advice. I won't interfere", she says. But she quotes her deceased father, whom she attributes with inspiring her to change her life. He would say "you have two ears and one mouth". It's a good lesson, to listen to others"
Messier is philosophical about her work, which is now a vocation. "We have an expression in French 'refaire la vie'. It means rebuild your life. But you can't really do that", [after suffering domestic abuse], she says. "You just go on".
CATÉGORIE : Canada - Éducation, action communautaire et culture
ORGANISATION(S) : Animescale
À PROPOS DE LA CANDIDATE :
Nicole Messier sait de première main combien il peut être difficile d'échapper à la violence conjugale. Un des obstacles qui a empêché Nicole de s'extraire d'une relation abusive plus tôt dans sa vie était sa crainte de laisser derrière elle son animal de compagnie vulnérable. Cet animal avait déjà souffert de fractures. Les refuges pour femmes ne peuvent accueillir d'animaux de compagnie et Nicole savait instinctivement qu'il devait y avoir d'autres femmes et d'autres familles confrontées à ce problème.
Animscale est né pour répondre à ce genre de problème. En trois ans, elle a bâti Animscale à partir de rien. Elle prend chez elle les animaux (chiens, lapins, chats, même des reptiles et des poissons) dans sa propre maison comme s'ils étaient les siens. Elle paie pour leur castration, la vaccination et elle les nourrit et les fait toiletter. Nicole travaille bénévolement toute la journée, s'occupant des animaux chaque jour jusqu'à ce que les femmes quittent leur refuge et soient en mesure de reprendre leurs animaux avec elles.
Son partenaire actuel, Mario Tittley, affirme que Nicole désire accroître la capacité de son organisation afin de pouvoir accepter davantage d'animaux. Selon lui, « Nicole accueille plus de 50 animaux par année, mais 150 doivent être refusés parce qu'elle manque de financement. Son objectif serait de construire un nouvel édifice et de tripler le nombre d'animaux admis. »