Animal Abuse and Domestic Violence

Justice Center, University of Alaska Anchorage. (Fall 2009). "Animal Abuse and Domestic Violence." Alaska Justice Forum 26(3): 6–7. Animal abuse is one factor in the dynamic of intimate partner violence, and can be used by law enforcement and domestic violence advocates in assessing risk. Studies have documented high rates of pet ownership by domestic violence victims in shelters, a substantial rate of children’s exposure to pet abuse, and clear indications that domestic violence victims’ concern for pets affect decisions to stay in or leave relationships with batterers. This article describes efforts to address some of these issues, including efforts in Anchorage. A bibliography of further reading on animal abuse and domestic violence is included.

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Concern that acts of animal abuse are connected with or are predictors of domestic violence prompted a number of specific research studies in the 1990s. This early work focused on describing interviews with women in battered women’s shelters and highlighted the frequency with which women reported abuse of pets by their partners. The interviews documented a high rate of pet abuse and appeared to indicate that animal abuse in the home and concern for pets affected if and when a woman sought assistance at a shelter—particularly because shelters did not normally accept pets.

As more attention was given to animal abuse and its impact in the context of domestic violence assaults, additional studies were undertaken. Frank Ascione discussed the limitations of some of these past studies in his article, “Emerging Research on Animal Abuse as a Risk Factor for Intimate Partner Violence” in the Civic Research Institute’s 2007 publication, Intimate Partner Violence. He noted that although twelve different studies found (1) a high rate of pet ownership by domestic violence victims in shelters, (2) a substantial rate of children’s exposure to pet abuse, and (3) clear indications that domestic violence victims’ concern for pets affected their decision to stay in or leave a relationship with a batterer, more research is needed that includes women in domestic violence situations who have not chosen to go to a shelter, in addition to women in shelters. In response to the concern expressed by battered women for their pets, many areas developed “safe haven” programs for free fostering of pets of victims of domestic violence. Anchorage is currently the only area in Alaska with a “safe haven” program. It is administered by Friends of Pets, a local nonprofit animal welfare group, in collaboration with the Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis (AWAIC) shelter. Another local nonprofit, the Eva Foundation Pet’s Program, provides post-shelter transition services to domestic violence victims and their pets.

In addition, since 2006 ten states have enacted domestic violence protective orders covering pets: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Nevada, New York, Tennessee, and Vermont.

Research involving a larger sample population of women was reported by Ascione, et al. in 2007 in Violence Against Women, “Battered Pets and Domestic Violence: Animal Abuse Reported by Women Experiencing Intimate Partner Violence and Nonabused Women.” The findings of this study agreed with earlier research about the high rate of pet abuse reported by victims of intimate partner violence (IPV). Responses showed that women in domestic violence shelters were nearly 11 times more likely to report that their partner had engaged in pet abuse than women who said they had not experienced intimate partner violence. This study again stressed the need for further research on co-occurring pet abuse and IPV with larger and more diverse populations, i.e., urban, suburban, and rural victims of intimate partner violence, as well as non-victims of IPV.

Catherine Simmons and Peter Lehman addressed some of these issues in a 2007 Journal of Interpersonal Violence article, “Exploring the Link Between Pet Abuse and Controlling Behaviors in Violent Relationships.” In their study of 1,283 women who owned pets and were sheltered at an urban domestic violence center in Texas between 1998 and 2002, they concluded that “[m]en who abuse the family pet appear to be more dangerous than men who do not.” The authors did not find that pet abuse was always a form of controlling behavior in incidents of domestic violence assault. However, they did conclude:

Despite the limitations of this study, it is clear that animal cruelty is an important factor for domestic violence workers to address in assessment and treatment of both victim and perpetrator populations. Batterers who also abuse their pets are both more controlling and use more dangerous forms of violence than batterers who do not. Therefore, addressing whether pet abuse has occurred in the home can help workers in the domestic violence field better understand the behavior of the batterer and the overall risk they present to their partner.

Animal abuse is one factor in the complex dynamic of intimate partner violence, and can be used by law enforcement and domestic violence advocates in assessing risk. In 2008, the Anchorage Police Department (APD) began a program to target animal abuse and to look at its connection to domestic violence. Detective Jackie Conn was assigned as the liaison to the Anchorage Animal Care and Control Center and received training from the Law Enforcement Training Institute National Cruelty Investigations School and from the First Strike program developed by the Humane Society of the United States to raise awareness about the connection between animal cruelty and other violent crime. Detective Conn now trains APD personnel in recognizing animal abuse, and relating it to the possible presence of other types of abuse in the home. She works closely with Alaska Department of Law Assistant District Attorney Joan Wilson who is regularly assigned the prosecution of animal abuse cases. For the period 2002–2009, 121 misdemeanor animal cruelty cases under Alaska Statute 11.61.140 and 11.61.145 were referred and 94 prosecuted. During the same period, one felony case was referred and prosecuted. Case statistics are also being compiled to better understand the relationship between domestic violence and animal abuse.