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Pet refuge service helps domestic abuse victims to flee Add to ...

Marion stayed with a violent husband because she couldn't bear to leave her animals.

The abuse worsened, and the New Brunswick woman, who did not want her full name published, was finally forced to abandon them as she fled the family farm with her children.

"I had to leave my dogs and cats, I had to leave my cows and pigs," she said, her voice shaking even years later. "And I was the one that looked after them. They were like my babies."

Studies have showed repeatedly that many victims of abuse delay leaving because they don't want to abandon their animals. But New Brunswick women in that situation can now seek help from Safe For Pets Too, a program providing refuge for animals of people escaping abuse.

The multi-agency program headed by the province's SPCA launched last month. It is building a network of foster homes and looking for corporate support. And in recognition of the barriers facing the province's rural women, it is ready to care for farm animals as well, a first in the country.

What to do with treasured animals has long been a problem for women seeking to quit abusive relationships. Pets tend not to be welcome at shelters or transitional housing, and livestock raise much more serious logistical issues. But leaving them behind can be emotionally shattering, and raises the possibility of abusers taking revenge on the animals.

When University of New Brunswick sociology professor Jennie Hornosty and Deborah Doherty, executive director the non-profit Public Legal Education and Information Service of New Brunswick, were studying rural abuse last decade, they heard one disturbing story after another about threats and violence to animals.

One woman said her husband threatened to let her bottle-fed lambs starve if she left. Another man wrung the necks of his wife's geese. One husband said he would have their child's pony put down if his wife fled his abuse.

"And the kid says, 'Mummy, don't kill the pony,'" Dr. Doherty said. "She comes off as the bad one."

Emergency sheltering of animals in such situations has been done across the country on an ad hoc basis, depending on need and availability of space. But the new service in New Brunswick appears to be part of a trend toward formal programs.

The Canadian Federation of Humane Societies has done a pilot project on the issue, and the Alberta SPCA recently started researching how animals affect a woman's decision to leave. And the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association in 2003 launched a service that finds refuge for pets. It uses a mix of clinics, volunteers and corporate donations to care for the animals until their owners get back on their feet.

"It's like leaving a child behind," Melissa Carlaw, spokeswoman for the OVMA, said of the wrenching choice some victims face. The association works with more than 100 women's shelters, she said, although the number of pets sheltered over the years is unclear because of privacy issues.

The reality is that women fleeing abuse may never regain the capacity to care for their animals. But temporary refuge takes one concern off their minds. And the animals will get proper care, free from risk of revenge, until the women are ready to decide what to do with them.

The need for the program is illustrated by a New Brunswick woman who left her marriage home in December. She said that she had often been encouraged by supporters to get rid of her pets. It was well-meaning advice, intended to help her make an easier exit, but the thought of abandoning the animals was heart-breaking.

When she finally left, she brought along her dogs. She found a refuge for them through Safe For Pets Too, but only after weeks bouncing from one temporary home to another.

"I kept hearing 'if you didn't have the dogs, you could stay,'" said the woman, who did not want her name published. "Unless they're your dogs, they're just dogs."

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