Skip to content Skip to navigation

Domestic violence victims need better options. The PAWS Act can help.

If we shame people in trouble, we can't help them—or their pets

Working in the animal welfare world, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen or heard some variation of “I love animals, but I hate people.” I’m sure you have a similar experience. Some in our field seem to wear it almost as a badge of honor and share the sentiment with great pride, while others roll it out only on particularly bad days, when the worst of human nature is on display.

I get it. Some days beat you down and the cruelty you see can color your perceptions to an amazing degree. I know the words passed my lips more than a couple times as I started out in this field.

Before I came to work for The HSUS, I worked at a large, open-admission shelter in Southern Maine. It was my first full-time job after college and I was eager to change the world for animals, but also really scared, because, well—people. The job I had was program coordinator, and I had oversight over the humane education and volunteer programs, as well as direct management of all our media and events, our website, and our Pets and Women to Safety programs. So my day-to-day work consisted of volunteers, kids, victims of abuse and the media. The most animal time I got was when I went around photographing the new animals to add to the website adoption pages.

At first, dealing with all these people felt almost like a chore, because “they didn’t get it.” But the domestic violence program provided me with an “a-ha” moment. Through this program, our animal shelter collaborated with the local domestic violence (DV) shelter to provide pet fostering for victims who were receiving services. Upon being notified by the DV shelter, I’d go and meet with the victim, talk about how the program worked, and take their animals with me, to be placed into foster homes—typically for a month, sometimes longer. I then stayed in touch with both the victim and the foster homes, to convey information back and forth until the family was reunited, or the victim decided that surrendering the pet was the best option. 

I was uncomfortable around the first few victims I met. I didn’t understand why they didn’t just leave, or how they had allowed themselves to get into the situation in the first place. I admit that the thought “They shouldn’t have animals” crossed my mind. While I was glad our program existed for the pets, my sympathy didn’t extend as fully to the people. However, as I worked with victims and got to know them, I began to realize that these individuals were trying their hardest to protect themselves, their children and their furry family members. That’s what the pets were to them: family members and beloved companions. One woman drove me a bit crazy, calling almost every day to check in on how her dog was doing in foster care—but I realized that I’d probably be doing the same thing, if I had to entrust the care of my cats to someone else.

Running this program helped to give me some perspective. I realized that people, for the most part, were good and wanted to help their animals. That I was impacting just one small pocket of a much larger issue, but that the work I did fed into a larger effort statewide and even nationally. And that pets and people go together; we can’t help one without the considering the other. A news article out of Las Vegas really hits this point home—While an immediate response could be “How could this heartless person abandon a poor dog  like that?”, when you read the note left with little Chewy, you learn that the woman felt she had no other option. Why was there no program near her where she could be safe and bring Chewy with her?

Programs like these are often called “safety net” programs—and they are that, but they are so much more. They provide care and comfort, a resource in a time of need and they help people recognize that violence against all forms of life needs to be taken seriously. That is why we’re championing the Pets and Women Safety or PAWS Act in the 115th Congress right now.

In our field, we see the link between human violence and animal abuse all too clearly. While multiple studies have shown that domestic abusers often seek to manipulate or intimidate their victims by threatening or harming their pets, only three percent of domestic violence shelters across the country accept pets. This federal Act (HR 909 and S 322) expands existing federal domestic violence protections to include threats or acts of violence against a victim’s pet and provides grant funding to DV programs that offer shelter and housing assistance for domestic violence victims with pets. The bill also requires the full amount of the victim's losses for purposes of restitution in domestic violence and stalking offenses to include any costs incurred for veterinary services relating to physical care for the victim's pet.

Currently, the House version has over 225 cosponsors and the Senate version has 14. This week, we have the opportunity to get these bills moving—but legislators need to hear from you in order to build positive momentum! Increasing federal protections, and providing funding sources will help boost the number of violence prevention agencies including pets in their programs, building collaborative efforts with organizations such as yours, and championing the cause that all beings— pets and people—need protection from abuse. I hope you will join me in taking action to help get the PAWS Act passed. A simple call or email is easy to do and really does make an impact. Visit humanesociety.org/paws to add your support!  

Do bad people exist? Sure they do. Otherwise, we wouldn’t need the PAWS Act. But rather than focusing on the negative, let’s focus on the positive that this legislation can achieve- helping more pets and their people live safe and happy lives.   

About the Author

Katie Lisnik is the Director of Cat Protection and Policy at The Humane Society of the United States, focusing on increasing interventions for and reducing community cats populations through sterilization and vaccination programs, as well as keeping more cats in their homes and preserving a strong human-animal bond. Katie has an MS in Animals and Public Policy from Tufts University; she is the Past President and a current Board Member of the New England Federation of Humane Societies; and she serves as an advisor to the Maine Federation of Humane Societies.