In early July, a three-month-old puppy was found inside a Las Vegas airport restroom with a handwritten note from the dog's owner. The note read:
"Hi! I'm Chewy! My owner was in an abusive relationship and couldn't afford me to get on the flight. She didn't want to leave me with all her heart but she has NO other option. My ex-boyfriend kicked my dog when we were fighting and he has a big knot on his head. He probably needs a vet. I love Chewy sooo much — please love and take care of him."
Chewy and his owner's distressing story is sadly not unique, which is why I want you to know about the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act (H.R. 909/S.322) currently before Congress. If passed, the PAWS Act will enable more shelters to provide emergency assistance to help victims of domestic violence and their pets. Currently, only 3 percent of domestic-violence shelters nationwide accommodate pets — a significant barrier for victims who need safety but don't want to leave their pets behind and in harm's way. Many victims delay their departure from dangerous situations or return to their abuser out of fear for their pet. The PAWS Act will not only expand protections to prohibit interstate stalking and harassment to victims and their pets, the act also authorizes restitution for veterinary expenses and establishes a much-needed national policy on this issue to encourage states to broaden their legal protections for pets in abusive households.
Unfortunately, domestic violence and animal cruelty often go hand in hand. For example, a Campbellton, Florida, man, charged with aggravated assault and domestic violence toward his live-in girlfriend, shot the family's dog twice and beat her with a rifle and later with an ax, until she was dead. In Amsterdam, New York, a man slit the throat of his girlfriend's cat and threw the cat out a window; two days later, he attempted to strangle his girlfriend. Another woman was threatened while she was forced to watch her cat tied to a tree and killed with fireworks by her abuser.
Studies show that up to 84 percent of women entering domestic-violence shelters reported that their partners had threatened, injured, or killed the family pet. For abusers, harming or threatening to harm a beloved dog or cat is a way of exerting control and intimidation, trading on the victim's love for their pet and using that love as a lever to prevent an escape from an abusive and sometimes life-threatening situation.
No one should have to choose between leaving an abuser and protecting a beloved pet.
A brave survivor spoke to the Humane Society of the United States' All Animals magazine, describing her frightening ordeal. For more than a decade, Alongi endured beatings and humiliation at the hands of her husband. A lack of resources prevented her from leaving, and she feared losing custody of her four children. "I was just so scared, I couldn't move," she says. The only rays of sunshine were her kids and a skinny calico cat they'd brought home one day. "She is so spoiled," Alongi says. "Every little twenty cents you give to them, they only think about getting something for Ginger." When Alongi's husband turned his rage on their daughter, she knew she had to leave. She called domestic-violence shelters around Michigan, where they lived, but found "they had no room for the five of us, let alone our cat."
The provisions in the PAWS Act could have helped Alongi, who left Ginger the cat behind when she and her children fled Michigan by bus. Her husband abandoned the house and the cat two weeks later, and a sympathetic neighbor fed Ginger through an open window for nearly two months. "She sent videos, and I could see Ginger getting smaller and smaller," Alongi says. "The children were heartbroken."
A compassionate attorney with the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project took Alongi's case and found her public housing in an apartment that allows cats. A little research led her to the Humane Society's Michigan state director, who made arrangements for Ginger to stay at the LACASA Center crisis shelter before she was reunited with Alongi and her children. These days, Ginger sleeps with whoever seems to need her most that night. At family therapy sessions, the children's moods brighten when they mention her. "I really thought we were saving Ginger when we took her in," Alongi says. "I didn't realize she would be doing this much for the children."
Domestic violence has touched every single one of us in some way. You might be a son or daughter forced to witness emotional or physical abuse by a parental figure, or a worried neighbor never knowing when to call the police when loud voices erupt next door, or maybe you're currently trapped in what seems like an impossible situation and you are desperate to get out. If this is you, please know there is help. And there is help for your pets. Please check out this directory of Safe Havens for Animals programs and safeplaceforpets.org.
No one should have to choose between leaving an abuser and protecting a beloved pet, yet far too many victims are forced to make this very choice. Although Chewy was rescued by a Good Samaritan, countless other animals aren't so lucky. That's why the Humane Society of the United States, Humane Society Legislative Fund, the National Sherriff's Association, the Fraternal Order of Police, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, the National District Attorney's Association, the National Network to End Domestic Violence, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and the National Children's Advocacy Center are endorsing the PAWS Act. But we need your help.
Will you take a minute to contact your U.S. representative and your two U.S. senators to urge them to cosponsor the PAWS Act? Calling is the most effective action you can take. Look up your elected officials and reach out. Remember, their job is to represent your interests!
After your call, please share this action form with everyone you know. Because there is strength in numbers, don't be afraid to call or email frequently. The passage of the PAWS Act will undoubtedly save lives.
Michelle Cho is a vice president at the Humane Society of the United States.