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Violence against animals often portends violence against people, but for women experiencing domestic abuse, the two can be one and the same. Seventy-one percent of women who own pets and enter domestic violence shelters report that their abuser threatened, harmed or killed their pet as a form of psychological control—yet less than 3 percent of those shelters allow pets in the U.S.
It’s no surprise, then, that 50 percent of women experiencing domestic violence feel unable to leave because they fear for their pets’ lives. Some animal shelters offer free housing for pets of domestic violence survivors—but accessing that housing often requires a call from social services, and it’s no substitute for keeping families, including pets, together.
Nonprofit GreaterGood.org and The Jackson Galaxy Project are working to preserve and protect those families through Safe Haven. The program taps experts from the GreaterGood.org’s longtime animal shelter renovation program to retrofit women’s shelters so they can accommodate pets. “One of the things that’s really powerful about the program is that it only costs about $5,000, in most cases, to fully retrofit these spaces,” says director of operations Noah Horton. “We can have a lot of impact with not a lot of funding.”
“For so many people, those animal companions are what signify home. Not the walls around them, but their pets,” adds Jackson Galaxy, who joined the Safe Haven team when his nonprofit merged with GreaterGood.org at the end of 2017. GreaterGood.org piloted Safe Haven last year and will now apply Galaxy’s behavioral expertise to designing cat and dog rooms. The program “epitomizes the definition of the word ‘shelter,’” Galaxy says. “We are providing shelter for those who desperately need it.”
Depending on the shelter, the team builds community play yards for dogs or even adds individual backyards to each room. Group cat rooms include perches for social cats and places for shy or traumatized cats to hide. “What simply starts out as sort of a bare room is transformed into a space that can be enjoyed by the pets while the families can get the help that they need,” says Horton.
Whether it’s space in an animal shelter or in a women's shelter, “you’re making it so that environmentally [the pets] feel like they have just a little bit of territory that belongs to them,” says Galaxy. It’s a labor of love for the Safe Haven team—each project and its location are kept under wraps, and contractors sign waivers to ensure the women’s privacy and safety—and an emotional milestone for Galaxy, who hopes to expand the program to homeless shelters.
“I started my whole journey with animals as a shelter worker, and what I saw plenty of was animals surrendered to our organization because of exactly what Safe Haven speaks to, which is women who were watching their pets get abused,” he explains. “You have people who love their animals so much that they will stay in an unspeakably horrible situation and, along with GreaterGood.org, being able to effect change for that person feels … I don’t even know if I have words to express what it feels like. It feels like this is what I was here to do in the first place.”