Think of them as the Red Cross for animals, says Nicole Forsyth, President and CEO of RedRover. For the past 30 years, the nonprofit has been helping animals in crisis situations. They set up five animal shelters during Hurricane Katrina and they rushed to the wildfires of Southern California to help pets displaced by the evacuations.
They also show up for pets caught in the middle of domestic violence, assisting with grants to help foster animals and provide them veterinary care when their persons are in a domestic abuse situation.
“One really powerful story that always gets me,” says Forsyth, “is when I heard a survivor give a talk and she described the cycle of leaving her abuser and returning. Then, they had an altercation. She had two small dogs who were hiding under the bed. They were shaking. When she saw them, that’s when she realized she had to leave, and leave for good because of what it was doing to them. Animals are a reflection of what you’re going through.”
She got out alive, says Forsyth, but one study revealed 48 percent of survivors delayed leaving their abusers out of fear for their pets’ safety. Studies also show up to 71 percent of survivors report their abusive partner also threatened, injured or killed their pets.
“Research shows [many] women won’t leave if they can’t bring their pets. It’s an obstacle I think that can be removed. This is totally solvable,” says Forsyth, a survivor of domestic abuse herself.
The Goal is to Make a Shelter Pet-Friendly in Every State
One survivor told DomesticShelters her partner “liked how upset it made me” when he threatened to hurt or kill their dog. Forsyth says this isn’t rare.
“Many, many times the abuser is threatening the animal in order to stop the person from leaving. Often, the number one reason [survivors don’t leave] is the fear of what’s going to happen to their animal if they leave them behind.”
Survivor Alexis told RedRover there was no domestic shelter near her in 2004 that would take in her dogs, Ginger and Herman, when she fled her abuser.
“I’m still living with the shame and the guilt and the horror of the feelings I had on that moment in November 2004 … of having to escape and leave them behind in order to save myself from homicide. No one should have to make the painful decision, as I did, between their own safety and the safety of their animals.”
Still today, only a small percentage of domestic violence shelters accept pets, says Forsyth. Fewer than two percent of shelterslisted on the DomesticShelters.org database indicate they provide onsite pet sheltering accommodations, while ten percent indicate that they help survivors find offsite referral accommodations for their pets.
That’s why RedRover offers grants to individual survivors for emergency boarding of their furry family members. They also help out with the cost of veterinary care. In 2016, RedRover helped 126 animals in domestic violence situations and provided 3,715 safe nights for pets.
But, Forsythe says this is just a stop-gap. What they’d ultimately like to do is see at least one pet-friendly domestic violence shelter in each state.
“We want to give grants to shelters who are trying to come up with on-site facilities. It seems like the best way to keep them [survivors and pets] together,” says Forsythe. “If you’re in a really difficult situation, there’s a lot of guilt with leaving your animal at an animal shelter. And, your pet may be a really strong support for you. We talk about the human-animal bond so much.”
Forsyth says her dog is terrified of men. “I’m his emotional support,” she says, and the same applies to many survivors and their pets, not all of which are dogs or cats either. Domestic violence shelters also run into the conundrum of survivors who have ranch animals, like horses and cows.
“These women are saying, if they leave, their husbands would not feed their horses, so that’s a huge challenge, too.”