Abuse hurts the whole family

Bonnie Belec
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Pets are often the reason why victims don’t leave, agencies say

One of the telltale tactics abusers use in violent relationships is threatening to kill the family pet, says the RNC’s domestic violence co-ordinator.

Suzanne FitzGerald.

Const. Suzanne FitzGerald told The Telegram recently, during an interview for a series of stories on domestic homicides, that a study in Saskatchewan revealed 78 per cent of the women polled who had been staying in shelters said the reason they hadn’t left the relationship sooner was because of these threats.

“The abusers would say, their animals — who they loved unconditionally — would either be killed or harmed, and in many cases they are,” she said.

The problem is, while a woman in a violent relationship may be able to leave the house and take her children to a shelter, she cannot take pets with her.

FitzGerald is the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary’s full-time  domestic violence co-ordinator — part of its efforts to put more resources into addressing an issue the World Health Organization calls a global pandemic.

FitzGerald analyzes calls for service and conducts risk assessments to determine if an abuser is likely to kill his intimate partner. She gets involved in high-risk cases where there is a perceived danger the relationship could end tragically. She’s actively involved in about 50 of them.


High profile cases

There have been several recent high-profile cases in the RNC’s jurisdiction where women have died at the hands of partners or former partners, such as David Folker, who was convicted Nov. 8 of second-degree murder in the death of Ann Marie Shirran, the mother of his son.

There are other suspected cases before the courts, and there have been at least three recent murder-suicides in the province.

Most recently, on Oct. 15, Brian Dawe shot and killed Julianne Hibbs and her fiancé, Vince Dillon, at Villa Nova Plaza in Conception Bay South. Dawe subsequently shot himself in a cemetery on Kenmount Road.

FitzGerald says by studying cases where women died violently at the hands of their partners, the police can  try to prevent them and, in the cases that are on her radar, apply risk-management strategies.

“One of the risk markers you look for is either threats to harm a child, an animal, family member or any person close to the victim,” she said.

“When they have a pet and it’s threatened, that’s one more reason not to leave,” said FitzGerald.

One such case occurred last year in Corner Brook. A man threatened to kill his girlfriend’s cats and he did. She found them in a bloody pillowcase when she came home from work. One of the cats was still alive, but had to be euthanized due to its injuries. He was sentenced to six months in jail.

The RNC and Iris Kirby House — a shelter for women, with or without children — are teaming up to try to change the stress women encounter when trying to flee a situation when they have pets.

Gail Tobin, the shelter’s executive director, said they are looking at animal shelters in Canada and the United States where programs are offered to individuals and their pets in crisis due to family violence.

“We’ve heard it, and RNC has obviously heard it — that these women won’t leave their pets,” said Tobin.

“So we’re looking now at how can we take one less of a burden off that woman’s mind? It does happen and that is one of the characteristics of an abuser. They destroy your personal property and they destroy the stuff they know means a lot to you, and animals they can lash out at,” she said.

Tobin said she told FitzGerald that’s one of the initiatives Iris Kirby House wants to get off the ground.

“All too often we hear it, and we’re hoping maybe the SPCA or other local animal shelters will come on board with us, so if a woman needs to stay in the shelter — because of allergies and so on we have to have a pet-free environment — but if we could get (a program) up and running, that is a major thing to help get a woman to come to the shelter,” she said.

One of the risk markers you look for is either threats to harm a child, an animal, family member or any person close to the victim RNC Const. Suzanne FitzGerald on domestic violence

St. John’s SPCA shelter manager Kristy Bailey told The Telegram Wednesday the idea of a short-term boarding program certainly has merit.

“So we would definitely be interested in chatting with the appropriate people, seeing how we could help.

“The space at the shelter is sometimes a bit challenging, so it would take some work to see what service we could provide for people in need, but we would certainly be open to create something to help,” Bailey said.

Newfoundland would be joining a growing trend in Canada in developing programs at animal shelters for victims of domestic violence, says  Kim Elmslie.

The communications and advocacy manager for the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies in Ottawa said several provinces have  implemented programs and other shelters are discussing it.

“We have heard from some member shelters who are doing it, and a lot of shelters are moving in that general direction, because often it has been found women won’t leave the abuse because there is nowhere to take the animal,  and that is used against them,” said Elmslie.

She said there is also a lot of cross-reporting when various agencies encounter abuse, whether it be against animals, children or adults.

“If the SPCA gets a call about abuse, it’s generally not just the animal in this family being abused. So if an SPCA officer goes in, they know what to look for. And, similarly, if child and family services are called in, they know what they are looking (for).

“It’s absolutely something we support in the community because there is so much crossover in domestic abuse situations, it is impacting all members of the family — the children, animals, everyone,” said Elmslie.

Organizations: The Telegram, World Health Organization, Iris Kirby House Villa Nova Plaza Canadian Federation of Humane Societies

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Canada, Conception Bay South Corner Brook United States Newfoundland Ottawa

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Recent comments

  • Jennifer
    December 06, 2013 - 11:05

    What a nightmare. I appreciate the thoughtful responses to this article. We need to unite to keep men and women safe from abusers and violent people that hurts others. That horrible nightmare of a person that killed his ex spouses cats should be locked up for much longer than six months. I would love to be part of a network that could help abused people (men and women) get out of these bad situations by looking after their pet. I couldn't afford to do it on my own but if we united to make this a group effort then I would love to be part of this. As an animal lover I understand that part of caring for animals is caring for the people that care for animals too. Please feel free to contact me to be part of an animal care network in my area.

  • Gerry
    December 05, 2013 - 22:58

    It is wonderful to know the RNC has a female officer assigned to help women in violent relationship. However, has consideration been given to develop a program which would reach young girls ( Say 13/14 ) to watch for signs when dating to avoid involvment with those type of guys. A man do not become violent when he gets in a relationship. It is there long before and there are signs to warn young woman. Prevention is the key to the future. Also, the same applies to a man. There are violent women.

  • Bill
    December 05, 2013 - 15:22

    Men who leave abusive relationships can't bring their pets to the shelter either. Oh wait, there are no men's shelters.

  • Joy
    December 05, 2013 - 13:09

    Let's not forget the men who are vicims of domestic abuse as well -- some women can be very cruel!

  • Michelle
    December 05, 2013 - 09:59

    When I was escaping a violent home life, one of the two abusers in the situation threatened to cut the head off my beloved pet cat. It is entirely true that people who abuse animals by extension have no problem physically harming others. When I escaped that situation, I did take my cat but it was extremely difficult to find a place that would accommodate us both. I would not have left him behind either and can fully understand why others would not.

  • Fred
    December 05, 2013 - 09:12

    I think it is a great idea for the SPCA to house the pets of women and children who are abused. Pets are an extension of their families. Women should NOT be afraid to leave an abusive relationship because of concern for their beloved pets. The quicker this is up and running the better it will be for women and children in abusive relationships!!! It needs to happen yesterday!

    December 05, 2013 - 08:29

    just read your piece and was thinking that maybe you could call on the community to help by putting their name on a list to ""foster"" the pet until the victims get back on their feet.

    • wayne
      December 05, 2013 - 20:56

      GREAT IDEA CATHY! Count me in! Where do I sign up?