Ottawa women's shelter to welcome pets

Interval House of Ottawa, a local women's shelter, is building a pet sanctuary so families can bring their furry companions with them.

9 in 10 abused women reported their pet had also been mistreated

One of Interval House of Ottawa's clients, pictured here, had to leave her pet behind when she left an abusive situation. (Jessa Runciman/CBC)

Women fleeing violence will soon be able to bring some of their family members with them — the four-legged kind. 

Interval House of Ottawa, a local women's shelter, is building a pet sanctuary so that families can be joined by their furry companions.

One expert says the new sanctuary could be the catalyst some women need to escape dangerous domestic situations, as pets provide invaluable support and love during a difficult transition. 

Amy Fitzgerald, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Windsor, told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning that most shelters don't allow women to bring animal companions along and that more of those types of programs are needed.

Fitzgerald used to volunteer at a shelter. Many women said they were forced by partners to give their pets away, she noted, or felt it was safer for the animal if they gave them up.

I hope and pray every day that he's not taking his anger out on the cat.- Interval House client

So she started asking questions and surveying women about their safety. 

"Over half of the women I surveyed reported they delayed leaving their partner because of concern for their pets," Fitzgerald said.

She added that 89 per cent of the women who were abused also reported their pet had been mistreated. 

'A member of the family'

One woman who has been at Interval House for a month after coming from another shelter had to leave a rabbit behind when she fled domestic violence.

The woman said her daughter cried over the bunny — but nothing else. 

"It was harder to leave the rabbit than it was to leave our possessions," she said. "[It's] like being separated from a member of the family." 

Having animals around would make things feel more at home, she added. 

Another woman at the shelter said she had to leave without her cat Buddy, and that her young son misses his feline companion immensely.

"They allow anxiety pets in prisons. I think a woman's shelter should be [an obvious place] where it's allowed," the woman said.

She said that the thought of leaving Buddy made her more reluctant to leave. 

"I hope and pray every day that he's not taking his anger out on the cat," the woman said.

CBC is not identifying the women to protect their safety.

An important bond

Kia Rainbow, the executive director of Interval House, has been working in violence prevention for 25 years. 

She said the pet sanctuary project began two years ago after she heard from a friend that there were no shelters that took in both domestic violence survivors and their pets. 

Kia Rainbow, executive director of Interval House of Ottawa, says having their pets can help women recover faster. (Jessa Runciman/CBC)

While there are organizations that foster these animals, Rainbow said some women end up not seeing their four-legged family members for up to a year. 

"When you're going through a traumatic experience, who licks your face? Who sits with you on the couch? Who is your emotional support?" she said. 

"It just seems very strange to break that bond when children and women need it most."

Free medical checks

Rainbow said that all the animals brought into the shelter will need to be spayed or neutered and pass medical checks, which will be free.

Building the centre costs $100,000, she added, and Interval House has raised $70,000 so far. 

The first phase of construction will be complete by March 1, 2018, Rainbow said.

"Don't women deserve that?" she said. "They've suffered enough trauma."