NYC’s pet-friendly domestic violence shelters allow families to heal together

URIPALS allows domestic abuse survivors in New York City to live at shelters with their furry friends.
URIPALS allows domestic abuse survivors in New York City to live at shelters with their furry friends. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Drew Angerer

Leave no pet behind!

That could be the motto of three progressive emergency shelters for domestic violence survivors that allow NYC victims and their children to live with their dogs, cats, fish, turtles — and, in one case, a bearded dragon — after they flee their abusers.

Nearly half of domestic violence victims delay leaving their abusers or refuse help to do so because they don’t want to leave their pets behind, according to Nathaniel Fields, president and chief executive of the Urban Resource Institute, which began URIPALS (People and Animals Living Safely) with a pilot program in 2013. Numerous studies have shown various correlations between human and animal abuse.

“Most of the co-sheltering models are not like this: We have the pets living directly with the family members” in two Harlem shelters and one in Brooklyn — the gold standard in healing and recovery, Fields said. Victims’ fears are not baseless, he said: People who abuse their partners may also hurt or threaten to hurt the pets victims hold dear.

Domestic violence is about “power and control: If I know you love your pet, I will use your pet to control you,” Fields explained, recalling that one abuser threatened to tie up a cat and microwave it if his partner did not arrive home in time.

To date, 62 families, including 102 children and 86 pets, have been helped, staying an average of 208 days in the emergency shelters. URI has another three shelters that cannot accommodate animals.

Pets on site “normalizes the environment” and eases the emotional trauma for children and adults who abruptly find themselves uprooted, said program director Kenneth McCrae. “We’ve had no negative incidents,” he said. Simply petting a dog or cat “helps to reduce anxiety” felt by domestic violence victims and helps healing, Fields added.

Dogs are limited to those weighing under 45 pounds, must wear muzzles when transiting in public areas at the URIPALS shelters, and are kept with their families so as not to annoy people with allergies and phobias.

Pets receive veterinary care and sometimes even therapy to recover from trauma: One cat, noted McCrae, came into the shelter with an extreme fear of men, cowering under the furniture whenever a man approached. “We worked with a pet behavioralist and had the cat eating out of my hand within a couple of visits,” McCrae recounted.

Ms. B, whose name and identifying details have been withheld for security reasons, said she had already returned one cat to an animal shelter because she thought her ex “was going to kill him.”

She said her ex has a severe mental illness and that he became emotionally and economically abusive, pathologically jealous and violent after her daughter was born 10 years ago, and stopped his meds and began drinking recklessly. She said she made many phone calls and conducted online searches while trying to figure out a way to leave him. Then, “someone from the Mayor’s Alliance (for NYC Animals) told me about URI,” and arrangements were made for B, her daughter, 8-year-old son and their remaining cat to obtain one of URIPAL’s cozy apartments in August.

“My kids were so excited” to know they would not have to leave their cat behind, B said: Their cuddle-loving black and white kitty “is a part of the family, a part of my kids — they’d be much more traumatized” if they had to lose the feline in order to be in a safe location. When her kids go to sleep, said B, the cat “comes to me and I pet her. She gives me a little massage” with her kneading front paws. “She gives me comfort,” said B, noting that even though she has lost her human partner, “someone is loving me.”

The lack of chaos in B’s new, if temporary, home has also been good for the cat, who no longer has to fear being chased or hit.

The animals exercise at a secured, on-site “pet haven” outdoors that is paid for, as are the other pet amenities, by the pet products and pet food manufaturer Purina, which has made a five-year commitment to the organization. The outdoor play areas are important, as some domestic violence survivors do not want to walk their pets in public for fear of being seen by their abuser or someone who knows them. Other animal welfare organizations also pitch in to help the pets.

Government funds received by URI to help domestic violence victims are not used to care for their animals, said Fields, but he and other advocates would like that to change. A bipartisan bill introduced last year in the Senate and House, the Pet and Women Safety Act, would give additional legal protections to abused pets and provide funding to shelters to help with shelter and veterinary costs so that more domestic victims can take their pets to safety just as they would their children. It is an issue growing in importance, as 6,941 requests for a domestic violence shelter were made on NYC’s domestic violence hotline in 2015 and there were 279,051 “incident reports” citywide, according to the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence.