Those who work in the domestic violence sector know from experience the signs of an abusive man.

He's jealous, often without reason; controlling — of money, his partner's social life — and prone to angry outbursts over seemingly trivial things.

He may make threats of violence, or actually act on them, though others outside the relationship might describe him as charismatic, charming even.

Oh, and he's cruel to animals.

The well-established links between animal abuse and domestic violence — that a person's mistreatment of animals can be a red flag or risk factor for their abuse of intimate partners, and a form of family violence itself — are increasingly being recognised in legislation, mainstream media and popular culture.

Family and domestic violence support services:

In its ground-breaking final report in 2016, Victoria's Royal Commission into Family Violence included several harrowing accounts from victims who had witnessed partners and parents torment and even kill their pets, including one woman who described her step-father's decades of intimidation and abuse.

"He would regularly smash things around the house in a rage, or flip the dinner table," the woman said in her submission.

"Once he cut the head off my mother's pet to 'teach her a lesson'. He regularly beat — and I mean beat — the shit out of our dogs. Hearing the sounds of this in my memory is still gut-wrenchingly sickening."

Since then a handful of programs for pets who are victimised or displaced by domestic violence have been established in Victoria and around Australia with the primary aim of allowing human survivors — who often delay or avoid leaving high-risk homes because of their abuser's threats of violence against animals — to flee sooner.

"They [perpetrators] are preventing the victim from leaving abuse because often they have nowhere to go with their pet, or they've threatened to seriously harm or kill the animal if they were to leave," forensic veterinarian Dr Lydia Tong told Hack last year.

Seeing animals as 'victims in their own right'

But while advocates have welcomed the growing public awareness of how pet abuse can be wielded as a weapon against people, the authors of a new book about domestic violence and companion animals say much less attention has been paid to how family violence affects pets themselves.

Now, they're calling for a more inclusive conversation that recognises animals as "victims in their own right", as well as the "life-saving" role pets can play in survivors' healing and recovery.

"Violence, even non-physical violence, can be very disturbing for animals; they feel it in their body and can develop lots of reactions to it including fear responses, hiding, depression and anxiety — especially if they have been housed somewhere temporarily [as a result of domestic abuse]," said Heather Fraser, an associate professor in social science at Queensland University of Technology and co-author with Nik Taylor of Rescuing You, Rescuing Me: Companion Animals and Domestic Violence.

Heather Fraser sits on a couch in a lounge room with two large dogs

"For us, what was missing from this discussion was a serious rather than trivialising acknowledgement of how animals experience domestic violence," Dr Fraser said.

"We need to think about what, for them, [abuse and recovery] looks like … and that is a step that we haven't yet taken globally."

The book is the culmination of years of research by the authors, in particular their 2016 project, Loving You, Loving Me, for which they conducted in-depth interviews with nine women who had suffered domestic violence about their relationships with their companion animals.

"It opened up the opportunity for us to hear from the women about how they felt their animals experienced the legacy of the violence," Dr Fraser said.

"And most of them said that, even though it was painful to talk about what had happened, it was also quite therapeutic. Others said it was validating because a lot of people had [previously] downplayed their concerns about their animals and said things like, 'It's just a dog, just leave the dog' or … 'the pound will take it' or whatever."

'He was bargaining my cat for my child'

Dr Fraser and Dr Taylor's interviews confirmed the findings of other studies which have documented accounts of animals being kicked, thrown and otherwise physically harmed in domestic violence contexts, often to coerce women — and the victims are overwhelmingly female — into complying with abusers' demands.

Notably, the first Australian study to examine this connection in 2008 found women who had experienced domestic violence reported significantly higher rates of pet abuse and threats of pet abuse than a control group of women who had not experienced domestic violence, with more than half of survivors reporting their abusive partner had hurt or killed one of their animals.

Leo's owner has MS and Leo is in care while the house is adapted to better care for him. 

But Rescuing You, Rescuing Me also explores the emotional and psychological impacts of domestic violence on animals, many of whom remain traumatised even after the violence has stopped.

One participant, for example, explained how her dog Maddie became so depressed and anxious after her ex-partner's bullying and abuse she would constantly walk around with her head down and her tail between her legs: "She was so uncertain of herself," the woman said.

Maddie also developed a stress-related skin condition that got so bad the woman considered having her euthanised, partly because she had struggled to find a place to live that would permit pets.

"I think we spent five weeks homeless, we were living in a motel with the three kids and I applied for everywhere with an animal," she said.

"It was getting to a point where I was considering not being able to have her. I had no idea what I was going to do with her especially with her condition because it's really hard to manage … she was so badly infected … I'm thinking we might even have to put her down."

Of course, pets are frequently caught up in the difficulty many women escaping domestic violence face in finding safe, affordable housing, with all participants reporting housing was a key factor in their decision of whether and when to leave. For many, this had severe consequences for their furry companions.

One woman, for instance, recalled how she had been unable to find accommodation for her son and two cats, and ended up leaving the animals with her violent partner when she fled the family home. Three days later, she said, he tracked her down at her parents' house, and waited outside holding one of the cats by the throat, calling out to their son.

"He was bargaining my cat for my child, and ended up throwing my cat," said the woman, who was later reunited with both cats, though they took a while to recover.

"That's the other thing that people sometimes don't appreciate," she said, "the impacts on the animals, not just [from] the domestic violence experience but … the separation [they may endure as a result]."

Dr Fraser believes her research adds to the mounting evidence of Australia's acute lack of crisis and long-term accommodation, which leaves women particularly vulnerable, especially those with animals. There are few domestic violence services and shelters that cater for pets in Australia and those that do report consistently being unable to meet ongoing high demand.

"Our governments aren't serious about providing good social and community housing for people, let alone animals," Dr Fraser said. "So until we are committed to addressing Australia's lack of housing, anyone caught up in domestic violence is going to be affected negatively."

When pets stop survivors from 'doing something stupid'

That's not to say there isn't room for optimism. Crucially, an entire chapter in the book is dedicated to exploring how animals have helped women heal from their experiences of domestic abuse, and vice versa.

While numerous studies have calculated the costs of violence — to victims and economies — few, the authors write, "recognise, count or appreciate the work of animal companions".

Many of the women interviewed reported their animals had been allies during the recovery period, Dr Fraser said, because of their "uncomplicated loyalty", lack of judgement and "unconditional love".

A close up photo of a border collie.

"Most animals bring physical comfort; some of the women told us about how their cats or dogs would lay on their chest, or purr in their face," she said.

"Animals also provide what I call a non-deliberative, non-talk-based interaction that takes people beyond the categories that other humans assign them. So they're not a 'single mum', or a 'domestic violence victim' or a 'fat slut' … they just are who they are, and their animal is responding to them as they are.

"Dogs particularly can act like every day with you is the best day on earth — that you're the most spectacular person, if they have a close bond with you — and you don't get that kind of affection from a lot of others."

The woman whose cats were tormented by her ex-partner described the emotional support they provided while she was navigating the complex process of rebuilding her life after leaving.

"When you're feeling so unlovable, when your whole life has been ripped [apart], and in those times when you're just so lonely … [my cat] would just be sitting right there with me, or that one paw that they do, that one paw on you," she said. "It is the best feeling in the world."

For others, the commitment of caring for animals was quite literally life-saving, with one woman explaining how her cats had prevented her from "doing something stupid" during a particularly dark period.

Another admitted her dog had helped her "maintain the will to live" and that, without him, she "probably would have … succeeded in killing myself".

"He is my healing process," she said. "He's therapy, in a sense."

'We humans think we're superior to animals'

But as much as they're playing a positive role in helping people recover from trauma, for Dr Fraser it's important that animals' needs are being met, too.

"We had lots of discussion about how people's animals were 'on guard' for them and their children, acting protectively," she said. "But that raises the question of, when are they able to have a little time off and for us to see that we might need to be on guard for them?"

It also raises the question of what it means to make space for animals in the national conversation about domestic violence, and why, according to the authors, this shift in perspective is "so difficult" for the wider community to embrace.

While other researchers have made the case that animals should themselves be considered as victims of domestic abuse, unlike in some American jurisdictions, in Australia they tend to be protected by animal cruelty and welfare laws, not family violence protection orders.

A woman in a floral shirt strokes a white cat.

One reason animals are overlooked in domestic abuse contexts, Dr Fraser said, is that they're "at the bottom of a hierarchy" in which children, then women, are prioritised.

"We humans think we're superior to animals; we still see ourselves as owning animals, we still feel free to use quite dominating methods to train them," she said. "So for as long as we continue to have that great sense of superiority and dominion over them, they'll only ever be trivialised."

Another barrier is that domestic abuse is still considered by many people to be a "private" issue to be dealt with behind closed doors, which means animals' experiences of that violence also remain hidden.

There are signs this is changing, though, including the fact that programs for pets are increasingly capturing public attention and affection — especially in social media communities — and, in some states, a little government funding.

But more is needed, Dr Fraser said: more research, more resources and more empathy, especially for animals.

"The service sector could do well to tap into existing arrangements catering for animals affected by domestic violence and learn from the programs already up and running … we need more shelters that accommodate both women and animals," she said.

"We also need the general population to be more prepared to help, to be willing to foster animals for someone [experiencing domestic violence] if they need that."

Ultimately, she added, "it's about placing animals at the centre of the conversation", and responding sensitively to their trauma.

As one survivor explained of her English bull terrier, Freddy, who struggled with severe separation anxiety after periods in temporary accommodation: "A normal dog would be alright [with me leaving the house for a short while] but I have to be aware of the fact that he's been through just as much [as me], and he's still dealing with it too, I'm sure."

Let's block ads! (Why?)

Original Article

ABC .net