Sask. SPCA aims to help victims of domestic violence by helping their pets

The Saskatchewan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is bringing people together in Regina to discuss the link between animal abuse and victims of domestic violence.

Organizations get together to discuss ‘the link’ between human violence and animal abuse

Many victims of domestic violence in Saskatchewan tell shelter workers that they have delayed leaving an abusive situation due to concern for their animals. (Mindaugas Kulbis/Associated Press)

People who work with victims of domestic violence and those who help animals are getting together this week in Regina to discuss what they call "The Link" between animal abuse and violence against people.

The Saskatchewan SPCA is working to create more options for victims of domestic violence who will not leave their abusers unless their animals also have somewhere else to go.

Just last week, the organization heard from a woman who would not leave a violent situation unless her cats could also be given short-term shelter.

"We were trying to make arrangements and she was not going to leave until she knew her older cats were safe,"  said Leanne Sillers, the SSPCA's  animal safekeeping co-ordinator.

The SSPCA was able to find a place to look after the woman's cats, and now the woman has a plan to leave when she is ready.
Leanne Sillers, animal safekeeping co-ordinator with the Saskatchewan SPCA, is working to help domestic violence victims who have pets. Here she is with her certified therapy dog, Jack. (Submitted by Leanne Sillers)

An unwillingness to leave animals behind is not uncommon for victims of domestic violence.

A Saskatchewan survey found 77 per cent of those who work with victims of domestic violence knew of someone who did not leave an abusive relationship due to concern for the safety and safekeeping of animals.

Sask. looks to Alberta

The survey in Saskatchewan was prompted by the results of a similar study by the SPCA in Alberta in 2012. It found nearly six in 10 women who arrived at shelters in that province had delayed leaving their situation because of concern for their animals.

We have organizations that help animals. We have organizations that help people. But there aren't really a lot of organizations that take both of them into account.- Tim Battle

"Many people wouldn't think of leaving their pets behind," said Tim Battle, who spent 18 years as director of education for the Alberta SPCA.

"Sometimes that's the last positive relationship someone has with another living being and they don't want to break that relationship."

But, Battle added, "The emergency shelters for women can't really accommodate pets and we wouldn't expect them to."

He first learned about the link between domestic violence and animal abuse before he ever joined the SPCA, as a teacher of troubled adolescents.

Battle said some of the children he was teaching had committed acts of violence against animals, but when he checked the history of the children, many of them had themselves been victims of abuse.

"We have organizations that help animals. We have organizations that help people. But there aren't really a lot of organizations that take both of them into account," Battle said.

Why don't victims of domestic violence just leave? People have lots of things which keep them in abusive situations. One of them is their pets. You can take your kids and get to an emergency shelter, but what do you do with your cat? Or the dog your kids adore? 3:17

Hundreds helped by Alberta alliance

In an effort to bridge the gap, the Alberta Alliance for the Safety of Animals and People was created. Battle said the key to its success is that it is a coalition of groups that represents a broad base of support across the province, including in rural areas.

Since it began operating midway through 2014, the group has helped nearly 150 people and more than 200 animals.

"Once that worry is taken away from them, it just opens up so many other possibilities for them and we've heard that again and again from our clients," said Battle.

Support in Alberta spread out from the two biggest cities and now fields calls from anywhere in the province. 

"It's rare that we're not able to help someone in some way," Battle said.

He said the group's next challenge is to provide temporary shelter for bigger animals, including horses. 

"It gets a little bit trickier than cats," he said.

Battle said women often stay when livestock are involved not only because of concerns for the animals' safety but also because their livelihood is entwined with them.

Lucky the dog was rescued from a hoarding situation and now lives with Tim Battle, recently retired from the Alberta SPCA. (Submitted by Tim Battle)

Pet support programs for victims of domestic violence have sprung up in cities across Canada. They shelter animals temporarily and some even offer subsidized veterinary checks.

Sillers wants to build on formal programs in Regina and Saskatoon to eventually offer province-wide support to pet-owning victims of domestic violence.

She said that alleviates a big burden during an already stressful time. She said women are at the highest risk for getting killed when they are leaving.

"So it is very, very scary when they're making these decisions. So keeping themselves, their pets, their kids safe is a huge priority."

The SSPCA's conference begins Thursday morning in Regina and wraps up Friday afternoon.

About the Author

Stefani Langenegger

Reporter

Stefani Langenegger has been with CBC Saskatchewan for more than two decades, most recently covering provincial politics as the Legislative Reporter.