The survivor of a violent relationship has difficult decisions to make. She has to figure out when it is safest to leave, where she can go, what she can bring and what she can’t. Sometimes she’s stopped cold when she realizes she might have to leave the dog behind.
Safelight and Helpmate — the domestic violence nonprofits in Hendersonville and Asheville, respectively — can help survivors arrange temporary boarding for their pets. However, space concerns made it impossible for either emergency shelter to safely keep pets with their families.
But starting next month, local survivors will have one fewer hard choice to make when leaving. A renovation has allowed Safelight to open kennel space for dogs and cats and pet-friendly dens at its emergency shelter.
Blue Ridge Humane Society, also in Hendersonville, will provide food, toys and other support for animals who are kenneled at the shelter. The partnership is funded for three years through a $100,000 Department of Justice grant.
Safelight Executive Director Lauren Wilkie says kenneling animals will keep more survivors safe. The organization fields one or more phone calls each month from people with pets who decide not to come to the emergency shelter because it lacked on-site care for animals, she says.
“They want to make sure their pet will be all right before they leave,” explains Blue Ridge Humane Society Executive Director Angela Podrick. She says her nonprofit also receives about one or two calls a month from people asking what can be done with their pets if they leave an abusive environment.
An often-cited statistic about domestic violence and pets is that 71% of women who own pets and entered into a shelter reported that their abuser killed, harmed or threatened a family pet.
“The perpetrator is capable of harming anyone less powerful than him in the home,” including children and pets, says Lydia Kickliter, an Asheville-based therapist who has worked with survivors of domestic violence. Survivors trying to leave their abusers know this and don’t want their pets to be hurt or killed, she explains.
“Oftentimes, there will be threats made to the animal” that work to “terrify the woman into staying because that image will get planted in their head,” Kickliter continues. The abusive dynamic with the perpetrator can lead the survivor to feel responsible for any abuse that is suffered by the pet that is left behind.
But survivors also simply don’t want to give up their beloved pets, who provide levity, comfort and love. “We are bonded to animals much like we are bonded to human family members,” Kickliter explains. “If a survivor is faced with the option of ‘stay here and be abused by this person, but I’m here with my loving pet who provides an incredible amount of support and unconditional love’ or ‘I have to go to shelter [alone]’ … faced with those choices, I think I’ll take what I know. I’ll stay here with this abusive person.”
Domestic violence shelters appeared around the country in the late 1960s, and two-thirds of states, including North Carolina, have legislation that includes pets in domestic violence orders of protection. Only recently, however, have emergency shelters incorporated kennels or pet-friendly co-living. (The Americans with Disabilities Act requires emergency shelters to allow service dogs to accompany their owners.) While Safelight recognized the need for a kennel at its emergency shelter for years, Wilkie says space restrictions made that impossible at its downtown Hendersonville location.
Building the kennel became possible once Safelight received state American Rescue Plan Act funding to build a new kitchen for clients and a computer training room. The new pet space was built in the shelter’s former kitchen, Wilkie explains. A $60,000 grant from Red Rover, an animal welfare nonprofit dedicated to helping animals in crisis, equipped the new space with cat trees, kennel doors and other items.
The kennels are not crates, Podrick says, underscoring that Blue Ridge Humane Society is following standards set forth by the Association for Shelter Veterinarians. The space includes an area for dogs with three 10-by-12-foot kennels, and another area has separate kennels for up to four cats. A pet-friendly den with a couch, coffee table and TV will enable Safelight’s clients and their pets to enjoy each other in a homey atmosphere.
Cats and dogs are the only animals the kennels can accommodate. The animals are not required to be spayed or neutered, but all animals that come to stay at the Safelight shelter will get a medical evaluation from Blue Ridge Humane Society, Podrick says. The nonprofit can connect clients with resources, such as a low-cost spay or neuter program, training or food, if needed. “Our job is to make sure that the individual staying at Safelight is not worrying as much about their pet — we have their back, and we’ll take care of their pet while they’re focusing on themselves,” Podrick says.
Asheville Humane Society has a temporary boarding program to help abuse survivors, according to Adam Cotton, Asheville Humane Society director of community solutions. It allows someone experiencing domestic violence to board a pet at local partnering kennels for up to 30 days.
Asheville Humane Society doesn’t board pets involved in domestic violence at its location out of concerns that the perpetrator might find either the survivor or the pet at the facility, thus posing a threat to them as well as to staff, Cotton explains. From 2020 to the present, 36 clients of Asheville Humane Society disclosed domestic abuse and received temporary boarding support.
There is a time limit on boarding, however, and it may not be long enough for a survivor to secure housing that allows pets. Therefore, some surrender their pets to the Buncombe County Animal Shelter, which is operated by Asheville Humane Society.
Since 2020, Asheville Humane Society has received 146 calls to its helpline concerning domestic violence and requests for how to keep pets safe, Cotton says. When someone calls about temporary boarding regarding domestic violence, the organization asks that the client have, or be in the process of getting, a caseworker to help navigate services for domestic violence survivors. The program also asks that pets be up to date on core vaccines and be spayed or neutered, he says.
Safelight, the Hendersonville domestic violence nonprofit, and Blue Ridge Humane Society have a similar temporary boarding program for the pets of domestic violence survivors.
But for someone leaving intimate-partner violence, which may have led to physical injuries or depleted financial resources, “two weeks is just not enough time for anyone in that situation” to find new housing, Podrick explains. In some cases, the nonprofit could extend its funding for longer boarding.
Safelight anticipates one or two pets at a time will stay at the kennels, Wilkie says. There’s no limit on how long clients can stay at the emergency shelter; the length of stay can range from a couple of days to six months. Wilkie continues that Safelight will not limit the amount of time pets can stay at the kennel, either.
An opportunity to help
An additional resource for the animal-loving community is a program within Asheville Humane Society called Home to Home Animal Adoption.
“Anyone in WNC, including survivors, can post their pet for temporary emergency fostering or for rehoming,” explains Cotton. “This website allows owners to have complete control over the fostering and rehoming process so that survivors of domestic violence can find the right home for their pet, whether it’s a temporary foster home or a pet’s new permanent home.”
Cotton, who has previously worked with survivors of domestic violence and assault, adds, “The likelihood of a survivor escaping a dangerous home increases dramatically if they can find a safe home for their pet while they work through other barriers to their own safety.”
Oct. 19, 2023: This article has been updated to state that Asheville Humane Society operates Buncombe County Animal Shelter, but does not own it.