Pet Talk: Abuse of pets linked to abuse in families
HELP FOR ANIMALS AT RISK IN WI.
By Jacques Von Lunen, Special to The Oregon...
October 20, 2009, 4:53AM
This year's Animal Law Conference at Lewis & Clark College explored the links between animal law and other disciplines. Keynote speaker Nicholas Kristof, author of the new book "Half the Sky," spoke on the connection between animal welfare and social justice.
A news story last week about the sentencing of a Portland man stabbing his ex-girlfriend's pet fish elicited numerous chuckling comments and made it into the "weird crime" section of MSNBC and other national news outlets.
Of course, it's funny; it's just a silly fish story, right?
How about kittens set on fire, dogs starved and horses' eyes gouged out by men who force their partners and children to watch? Still chuckling?
The message these abusers send their partners is the same, according to the experts who compile such gruesome tales: "This is the power I have, and this is what could happen to you if you leave."
Last weekend, several of these experts, along with some 240 law students and professionals from all over the country, came to Lewis & Clark College to attend the college's 17th annual Animal Law Conference, the longest-running in the nation. This year's theme was the links between animal law and other areas of the legal profession; many sessions dealt with the connection between animal abuse and domestic violence.
This connection is still unclear for too many in law enforcement, Heidi Moawad, Multnomah County deputy district attorney, said in the first session on Saturday. It's clear to her: she's the one who prosecuted the fish case. (Donald Earl Fite III, 27, was sentenced to two years of probation and a psychological evaluation.)
Frank Ascione, executive director of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection in the University of Denver's Graduate School for Social Work, said at the conference that people who abuse animals often do so to punish family members attached to the pet.
"It creates an atmosphere of fear," he said. "It's a way of illustrating the power of the abuser, to show, 'I could do this to you.' "
Ascione became interested in the subject through teaching child psychology. In the late 1990s, he conducted his first small study in a Utah women's shelter. Out of the 38 women involved, 74 percent had pets, which matches the national average for families with kids. More than half of the women said their abusive partner had also hurt or killed the family pet.
His attention captured, Ascione widened the study in 2007 to interview 101 women who'd taken refuge in shelters. He also recruited a control group of 120 women with no abuse history.
The earlier findings were confirmed: 54 percent of the battered women reported their partner had also hurt or killed their pet. Five percent of the women not in shelters gave that answer.
To make sure the abused women weren't just painting their former partners in a worse light, Ascione went into a men's prison and talked to inmates who'd either been convicted of or had acknowledged domestic abuse. Fifty-five percent said they had abused the family animal. The numbers matched.
Some might think that Utah isn't representative of the rest of the country, let alone the world. Researchers in Australia noticed Ascione's study and ran one of their own. The results were the same. A number of studies conducted elsewhere in the United States also have backed up Ascione's findings.
Oregon notes connection
The studies illustrate the importance of making professionals in the domestic violence field aware of the connection to animal abuse. They can show what kind of environment makes domestic abuse more likely and point to early detection. Furthermore, most people, and many professionals, would first rescue the woman and child and then worry about the pet, if at all. But throughout last weekend's conference, speakers appealed to future judges and prosecutors to consider a number of questions.
What if the two forms of abuse are inextricably linked? What if one factor keeping women in abusive homes is that they don't want to leave a pet to certain death? What if moving to a shelter without your belongings, without your child's favorite toy, without your clothes, is hard enough -- will you also leave your pet?
And what about the double dose of violence that children are exposed to: against the mother and against the pet?
Oregon, by the way, was the first state to recognize this link, enacting ORS 167.320 in 2003. The statute provides for increased penalties if someone charged with an animal cruelty misdemeanor has prior convictions for family violence.
Because of research by Ascione and others, more progress is in sight. Tougher animal cruelty laws are on the books as legislatures see the connection to crimes against humans. Animal cruelty offenses may soon be tracked in the U.S. Department of Justice's National Incident-Based Reporting System, which would allow researchers and law enforcement to better see parallels in domestic and animal violence. Professionals from various disciplines are talking.
Help for pets
If you are seeking shelter from domestic abuse but don't want to leave your animals, here are some resources.
Portland area: The Oregon Humane Society will house pets for two weeks free of charge. The request has to come from an agency or women's shelter, so if you need this service, ask the shelter to call the humane society at 503-285-7722.
Oregon coast: My Sister's Place, a women's shelter in Newport, is constructing animal facilities that will be available in late spring. 1-800-841-8325 or www.mysistersplace.us.
Columbia Gorge: Helping Hands Against Violence in Hood River will house you and your pet. 541-386-4808 or
Southern Oregon: Battered Persons Advocacy in Roseburg will house your pet and provide foster service on a nearby farm for larger animals. 541-673-7867.Emergency pet shelters
Although still too few women's shelters provide for pets, the number is growing.
Few shelters are equipped to admit pets to the same living areas as families -- questions of safety, allergies and hygiene preclude this -- but some shelters either have arrangements with animal facilities or create kennels next to their buildings. It gets really tough when a woman owns horses or other farm animals. A shelter in Roseburg that accommodates such animals gets calls for help from as far as the Midwest.
Ascione has made it easier for shelters to help pet owners by developing a how-to guide. His fellow panelist Saturday has used that guide. Megan Senatori, a lawyer in Madison, Wis., started Sheltering Animals of Abuse Victims, which provides confidential emergency foster care.
In her presentation, she cited statistics to impress the importance of cracking down on animal abuse: Animal abusers are five times more likely to commit violent crimes such as rape and murder, four times as likely to commit property crimes and three times as likely to commit drug-related crimes.
As the conference's main day came to a close, its biggest marquee name put the issue of animal abuse in a larger context. Nicholas Kristof, columnist at The New York Times, best-selling author and Oregon native, gave the keynote address, in which he talked about the need for compassion toward animals in the context of social justice.
Earlier in the evening he spoke about the connection of a great part of his work -- fighting injustice against women -- to animal abuse.
"There usually are concentric circles of compassion," he said. "In some societies women are on the outward circles; animals are always on the outer circle."
During his worldwide travels, he has observed that societies that treat animals badly also treat women and minorities with disdain. These tend to be places where "not a lot of stock is placed on empathy," he said, places where displays of strength are deemed important.
What does Kristof think about a conference on animals when so many people are living in abject poverty?
"It's a mistake to think that one can only worry about one thing," he said. "Worrying about animals doesn't mean worrying less about women or the poor."
-- Jacques Von Lunen