'I don't want other women to feel stuck': Program helps victims of abuse find care for pets

SafePet arranges foster care for the pets of survivors of domestic violence for the duration of the survivor's stay at a Toronto-area shelter.

SafePet foster caregivers provide food, shelter for pets while victims at risk of abuse find safety

Taryn Rive wanted to speak out about how SafePet helped her because she doesn't want other women to feel like they're trapped in an unsafe situation. (Paul Borkwood / CBC News)

Taryn Rive says while she was staying in a shelter as a victim of abuse, she struggled to find care for her cat named Pheobe.

"It was very difficult. It was very traumatic. I couldn't sleep. I felt guilty," she said.

When she found SafePet — a program that arranges foster care for the pets of survivors of domestic violence for the duration of the person's stay at a Toronto-area shelter — she said it made the transition to her new life much easier.

"When I got Pheobe back, she was healthy, she was happy," Rive told CBC Toronto, adding that her pet received foster care for six months and "she was loved."

Taryn Rive says her cat Pheobe is part of her family. (Submitted)

Rive stresses the importance of programs like this for women in her situation, saying she felt trapped at times because she didn't have anyone who could watch her pet while she sought help.

"Do you know how many times I risked the safety of me and my child, going back to my apartment, to feed Phoebe and give her love?" she said.

"I would never have forgiven myself if something happened to my child."

'Abusers use pets as leverage'

The Ontario Veterinary Medical Association started SafePet in 2003 to assist women at risk of abuse. 

Hayley Glaholt is the executive director at Link Coalition Toronto and one of two Toronto women who helped start an affiliate SafePet program in Toronto last year. She says the need for programs like it in this city is huge.

Hayley Glaholt is the executive director of Link Coalition Toronto, which aims to end the abuse of people and animals in Ontario through education. (Paul Borkwood / CBC News)

Glaholt's SafePet program is currently partnered with five Toronto-area shelters. She hopes the organization will continue to grow.

"As those who work in the violence against women sector know, a lot of women won't leave unless they can take their pets with them," she said. 

"Abusers use pets as leverage."

Glaholt adds that many women's shelters in Toronto don't accept pets, which is why a program like this is necessary.

'It's a miracle'

The caregivers provide food, shelter, and exercise for the pets and SafePet veterinarians provide assistance by serving as a neutral location where the pet owners can drop-off their animals before entering a shelter.

The vet also provides the pet with a health exam and administers any needed vaccinations.

The identities of the pet owners and of the SafePet foster caregivers are kept strictly confidential for the security of everyone involved. Once the woman is ready to leave the shelter, she is reunited with her pet. 

The program currently has 10 volunteers and 11 foster homes in the GTA. 

Rive says it was important for her to speak about this program because she doesn't want other women to struggle the way she did.

"I don't want other women to feel they're stuck in an unsafe environment. There is a safe place for their animals," Rive said.

"It's a miracle that women who experience domestic violence deserve."