The meetings take place in unremarkable parking lots.
A woman arrives, sometimes with children in tow, unloading pet food, toys or a dog bed. She hands over the leash and signs some paperwork.
The handoffs are part of Noah’s Rest, a program that shelters pets for people fleeing dangerous situations.
The program was created in 2012 by Deana Noonan, a professional dog trainer who said she was troubled after reading that abused people stay in relationships longer because of their pets. The Domestic Violence Awareness Project reports that as many as 65 percent of domestic violence victims delay leaving a dangerous situation because they worry about their pets.
“We’ve heard from some victims that they didn’t leave for the fear that their abuser has either threatened to harm the pet or has harmed the pet,” said Jill Verbrick, who works with victims at the Lake County State’s Attorney’s office, which refers people to Noah’s Rest.
She added, “It’s just another way of controlling and manipulating the victim.”
So far, Noonan has helped six families with 12 pets in the Chicago area.
When Noah’s Rest started, the first person she helped was a woman who wanted to escape an abusive relationship but didn’t want to leave her two dogs.
“If there wasn’t a place for the dogs, she didn’t think she could leave,” Noonan recalled. “She didn’t know what she was going to do.”
Domestic violence shelters might not accept pets. Friends or family who could keep the pet might be far away, or have children or allergies that limit their ability to help. People often can’t afford a kennel.
“We want to make (the pets) as comfortable as possible,” Noonan said.
After meeting the pet’s owner in a neutral location, such as a police department or parking lot, Noonan finds out all about the pet, words it responds to and preferred food.
Sometimes she finds that the pets have been abused too.
Noonan says she often keeps in contact with owners while they seek a safe location, housing and a new source of income.
“Many times they have children, and the children miss the pet,” Noonan said.
So far, Noah’s Rest has only handled dogs and cats, but Noonan said she’s open to other animals.
Advocacy groups like Women and Children’s Horizons in Kenosha and A Safe Place in Zion, along with the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office, refer clients to Noah’s Rest.
Everything is free. The pet owner signs paperwork assigning temporary custody to Noah’s Rest, and the pet then sees a veterinarian for a basic exam. The pet is taken to one of Noah’s partnering pet-care facilities. The owner doesn’t know where, for his or her and the pet’s safety.
It is tough, Noonan said, for the owner to drive away.
“There is always that moment, and I think that we kind of get a catch in our throats, too, because we know that it’s hard for these people,” she said. “But at least they know that the goal is to be reunited.”
The owners have 60 days to come back for their pet, however, Noah’s Rest tries to be flexible in complex scenarios.
Noonan herself doesn’t know the specifics of their situations. She doesn’t need to, to help.
“They all take a piece of our hearts, these pets,” she said.
Recently, Noonan reunited a domestic abuse victim with her cat.
“The cat would not stop meowing,” Noonan said of the domestic shorthair. “It was like, ‘You’re back, you’re back.'”