By Terra Shastri
Tessa* was in an abusive relationship for several years and feared for the safety of herself, her daughter and her adopted cat, Phoenix. After a tumultuous nine years, including a move from South Africa to Toronto, Tessa finally pressed charges in December 2018.
“Because you’re always in survival mode, you think that you’re the problem,” she says. “I was diagnosed as bipolar, so he (her spouse) would use this to his advantage and tell me I’m crazy, and that if I reported him, child services would take our daughter away and I would be deported back to South Africa. It was awful.”
Tessa and her daughter fled to a shelter, but they had to leave Phoenix behind, since the shelter didn’t allow pets. Tessa was very stressed about her cat’s safety, and she would return to their apartment when she knew her spouse wouldn’t be there to make sure Phoenix had food and water. But those return visits were a huge risk: the period immediately after a separation is the most dangerous for an abuse victim. Tessa was willing to take that risk to ensure Phoenix’s welfare.
Women subject to domestic abuse need to be concerned about their pets. A 2017 study showed that 89 per cent of women who had companion animals during an abusive relationship reported their animals were threatened, harmed, or killed by their abusive partner. 1
These findings echo other research showing that domestic violence toward pets correlates with domestic violence toward humans and is used as a tool by abusers—violent members of the household will threaten to hurt or will actually hurt a companion animal as a method of control and as a form of emotional violence. In fact, more than half of women in domestic violence shelters report they delayed leaving an abusive relationship due to fear for a pet’s safety. 2
Dr. Melinda Merck, a forensic veterinarian in Texas, understands the link between animal cruelty and domestic violence, and the danger involved.
Early in her career, she was working in a small animal practice in Georgia and, “I’d see patients with injuries that were inconsistent with the environment where they lived and inconsistent with the history but evidence of abuse, so I would report it and get an investigation going.”
She set out to learn everything she could about forensics and how the techniques used to investigate human cases could be applied to animals. She worked with medical examiners, law enforcement and prosecutors, and in 2009 she started her own animal-forensics consultancy in Austin. She’s also working
to persuade law enforcement that there’s a link between animal cruelty and serious crimes like domestic abuse.
“I think the earliest published papers were in the ’60s when they started finding some connection, and now we’ve got the interest of law enforcement, all the way up to the FBI, recognizing this link,” she says. “The patterns are there and it’s undeniable.”
Dr. Merck also teaches veterinary professionals about the signs of abuse or animal cruelty. She’s authored and co-authored books about veterinary forensics, she developed the first veterinary forensics course for University of Georgia and Florida veterinary schools, and she lectures and teaches workshops at veterinary events and conferences, including the Veterinary Meeting and Expo.
She shares a situation where an abused woman went home to find one of her three dogs laying in his crate, bleeding and injured. Her boyfriend was there and claimed he didn’t know what happened and suggested maybe the other two dogs were responsible. She rushed her injured dog to the nearest emergency hospital, where the veterinary team took the dog into surgery and repaired the open wound.
The woman picked up the dog the next morning and dropped him off at another practice for recovery. She explained to the admitting technician that her boyfriend had kicked her, and she was worried he did something to her dog. Dr. Merck was called in to examine the dog, and when she looked at the superficial lacerations on the animal, she confirmed they were attempted stabbings from a serrated knife. “I also found blunt force impact bruising on the dog, so I reported it and we got the police out that day.” After an investigation, the boyfriend was arrested and charged with animal cruelty and domestic violence.
The situation shows how important it is for veterinary teams to recognize and then navigate any suspected cases of abuse. “We can’t make anyone do anything for their animal—we can’t legally do that—so we have to make animal welfare first and foremost, the driving factor in all of our decisions,” says Dr. Merck. This could mean getting the authorities involved in suspected abuse cases. If there are cases where a veterinarian is unsure if abuse is occurring, she recommends getting the pet in to the clinic for frequent rechecks to monitor the pet and the situation. “I think if we were to go back to our oath about animal welfare being the priority, no matter what, it becomes easier to make decisions when it feels like an ethical dilemma but it’s really not.”
Programs that help
Shortly after pressing charges, Tessa learned about the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association’s SafePet Ontario program, which fosters companion animals for women and their children who need to flee from domestic violence to the safety of a shelter. Instead of worrying about Phoenix’s well-being and risking her life by returning to her ex’s apartment to check in on her, Tessa accessed the program to get her into foster care.
Her case worker arranged to have photos of Phoenix sent to Tessa while they were separated. “When you’re in an abusive situation, the pet you have could be the only positive relationship in your life and you don’t want to give that up,” she says. “You have no idea how much it meant to know Phoenix was in good hands and to not have the additional stress of worrying about her welfare.”
Six months later her situation was improved, and Tessa was reunited with Phoenix. “SafePet is life-saving—it really is. I don’t know if I would have stayed at the shelter if I was unable to get Phoenix to a safer place.”
To learn more about the SafePet Ontario program and how you can help, visit safepet.ca/how-to-help-veterinarians.
*Name changed for privacy.
1 Statistics Canada. (2013) Measuring violence against women: Statistical trends. Ottawa, ON: Ministry of Industry.
2 Collins, E., Anna M. Cody, Shelby McDonald, Nicol Nicotera, Frank Ascione and James H. Williams. Violence Against Women. A Template Analysis of Intimate Partner Violence Survivors’ Experiences of Animal Maltreatment. 2018 Mar; 24(4): 452-476. Published online 2017 Apr.2
This article was originally published in Focus, a magazine by the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association. Terra Shastri is OVMA’s director of business development and strategic initiatives.