Candy (left) and JJ: Pets can become pawns in the hands of a domestic abuser.
Candy and JJ can't tell us what happened at their town of Bristol house on Sept. 16. According to news reports, animal control officers removed the cat and dog from their home after Kevin Herskind shot and killed his wife, Julie, their German shepherd, and then himself.
I learned about the incident when I saw the sweet-looking animals on Facebook. The Dane County Humane Society was seeking a new home for the pair, requesting that they be adopted together.
Candy and JJ's plight illustrates a disturbing connection between intimate partner violence and pets. Abusers use animals to control their families, and sometimes to keep victims imprisoned in violent situations. That's why the new Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (DAIS) shelter, which broke ground in July and will open next summer on Fordem Avenue, will include a small kennel so someone fleeing a violent home can also keep pets safe from harm.
Linda, an abuse survivor (who requested we withhold her last name), says she wishes she had known where to turn when she wanted to leave her violent husband in the late 1980s. "He said, 'How would you like it if you came back and your cat was dead? It wouldn't take much to snap her neck. You care more about this cat than you care about me,'" she recounts.
One night, Linda says, her husband stormed through the door and said, "I'm going to hurt you the way you hurt me." He owned a gun and an ornamental sword he'd been sharpening. Afraid for her life, Linda slipped out of the house; she spent the whole night hiding in a field.
And she left her cat behind. She spent weeks couch surfing at friends' and fretting about her pet's safety "I was terrified that whole time, with her being there. I felt guilty, like I was endangering her, but I honestly didn't know what else to do."
Linda got the cat out safely while her husband was at work. She wishes she'd known about programs like Dane County's Sheltering Animals of Abuse Victims (SAAV), a local organization that has become a national model for providing safe homes for pets while victims are in transition.
"It's hard to put your foot out the door because you have to admit a lot of things to a lot of people, and there's a lot of shame that goes with it," says Linda. "And having a pet complicates matters. It's traumatic enough to say "I need a place to stay,' and it's imposing to say 'and I have an animal.'"
Linda's situation is not unusual, says Shannon Barry, executive director of DAIS. "Batterers will do whatever they need to do in order to control their victims.
"For many victims who have been systematically isolated from their friends and families by their batterers, often their pets become their only support system," says Barry. "Batterers see that and will start to threaten to harm the animal -- up to and including murdering the animal to demonstrate that they have control."
Barry says she's committed to removing as many barriers as possible for people to get themselves and their pets to safety. "When we started designing the future home of DAIS, we spent a lot of time talking about everyone's dreams. One of those dreams was having a kennel in the building so there was nothing that would keep someone from coming in."
DAIS currently won't turn away someone with a pet, but it has no official place to house animals until it can get them into foster homes. Barry says DAIS has had pets in the staff bathroom, the meeting room and her office.
In the new shelter, several pets will be able to stay in a separate kennel (with an outdoor run), connected directly to the residential wing of shelter so residents can visit the animals until they can be placed in foster care.
Megan Senatori and Pam Hart, founders of SAAV, met at the UW law school. They attended a conference sponsored by an animal sanctuary that outlined the connection between animal abuse and domestic violence. They heard from a caseworker about a client who left a Wisconsin shelter after her batterer threatened to cut off her dog's ears with a garden shears. The caseworker never heard from the victim again.
"We both wondered what you would do if you were a victim with animals because we both knew we wouldn't want to leave our animals behind," says Senatori. The students researched national models and put together a proposal that involved collaborating with DAIS and the Dane County Humane Society.
Now, DAIS's crisis line workers ask all callers if they fear for their pets' safety. And when someone with a pet needs to leave her home, SAAV finds confidential foster homes for the animals. "We don't want the name of the foster family to get to the victim and then to a batterer," says Senatori, who now practices law at DeWitt Ross & Stevens and teachers a law school course on animal law.
Since 2003 SAAV has arranged foster care for more than 150 animals. Most of them are dogs and cats, but foster families have also taken in reptiles, birds, goats, horses, chickens and turkeys.
Bebe Bryans, head coach for the UW women's rowing team, found out about SAAV by reading a blurb in the Inner Fire Yoga newsletter. "It immediately struck me as something I wanted to be involved in, in a forehead-slapping why-haven't-we-done-this-before way," says Bryans. She raises Australian cattle dogs, and last year she fostered a dog for 90 days.
"One of the most poignant things for me is that when I went to pick up the dog, there was a three-page list of things the person had put together for their dog," says Bryans. "It was obvious that the dog was extremely loved and spoiled rotten. He was dropped off with nothing. That brought it home to me that this person obviously cared so much about this little dog, but when it was time to go, nothing came with the dog."
Senatori says Wisconsin should do more to protect pets and humans in violent homes. For example, 23 states currently extend restraining orders to nonhuman family members. In Wisconsin, veterinarians are required to report suspected animal fighting, but not animal abuse or neglect. Strengthening the legal support could go a long way, says Senatori. And because animal abuse is considered a "lethality predictor," saving pets means saving lives.
In the meantime, Barry says SAAV has been a godsend for Domestic Abuse Intervention Services.
In a satisfying coda to a nightmarish incident, Candy and JJ (now called Eddie) found a new home in mid-October. Jeanette Burda, a teacher at Memorial High School, said her daughter saw the Channel 3000 Facebook post, and the family decided to invite the pets into their home. They already live with Emma, a 13-year-old basset suffering from hypothyroidism, and a 17-year-old-cat named Lucky, who has arthritis.
"We believe JJ and Candy will do well in our geriatric animal home and are already off to a good start," Burda wrote in an email to the Humane Society. "Each of them has found their own corners and favorite places and are beginning to make friends."