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It started as a catchy slogan some four years ago—25 by 2025. But now, it’s nearly a reality. By the end of 2025, the nonprofit RedRover wants to see 25 percent of all domestic violence shelters welcoming pet survivors as well as human survivors. Red Rover is working in partnership with PetSmart Charities and Greater Good Charities, and has support from Purina, to reach this goal.
This means survivors escaping domestic violence can leave with their dog, cat, guinea pig or other furry, scaly, feathery or fin-covered family member by their side. Allowing pets at shelter means more survivors can leave abuse while also resulting in fewer animals being abused. It’s estimated 41 percent of intimate partner abusers also have a history of animal cruelty (and that’s just the reported cases).
Undoubtedly, one of the best parts of RedRover’s 25 by 2025 initiative is that they want to help service organizations build pet-sheltering facilities on site at no cost to them. In 2023 alone, RedRover provided 25 grants totaling $1.1 million for 13 new on-site pet-friendly shelters.
Katie Campbell, RedRover’s director of collaboration and outreach, knows it’s no small appeal though. There are logistic hurdles to consider—where will they put animals? What will the board say? What if a dog barks all night? What if a staff person is allergic?
“I totally understand what I’m asking people to do when I say, ‘I know you’re already housing people, let's bring in pets too.’ But we know that pet-friendly sheltering can work and does work. It’s going to help people heal and we’re going to keep entire families safe.”
Abusers Use Pets to Keep Survivors Trapped
The American Humane Association reported that more than 70 percent of female domestic abuse survivors who own pets, and who sought help at women’s shelters, reported that their abuser had threatened, injured, maimed or even killed family pets for revenge or to gain psychological control over their victims. Abusers often use survivors’ pets as a means to control the survivor and trap her for that much longer in the relationship. Studies show that survivors may stay with an abusive partner up to two years longer because they can’t escape with their pets.
In February of 2019, Janet Bohm’s husband, Carl, set their Omaha, Neb., house on fire with Janet and her 17-year-old daughter, Amanda, inside. Carl had been abusive toward his wife for years, and his abuse included kicking the family dog, reported Janet. An animal lover, Janet had four dogs, three cats, seven ducks, chickens and a miniature goat. When she tried to file for an order of protection in 2018, asking to evict her husband in order to keep her and her daughter and her animals safe, the judge dismissed her claims of abuse. Janet returned home.
Though she and her daughter survived the fire, Janet passed away from complications from her injuries in October of 2021.
“Many survivors aren’t going to come to shelter if they don’t have a safe place for their pets,” says Campbell.
Though in the beginning of RedRover’s campaign they met some hesitation, Campbell credits education around pets and domestic violence as what shifted the tides around 2020. Advocates realize, she says, that they can’t help people if they can’t help pets.
‘Do It Anyway’ Is One Shelter Director’s Advice
Elise Johansen is the executive director of Safe Voices, a system of shelters in Maine. With RedRover’s help, they became pet-friendly. Johansen says it’s what she’s seen as a result has been incredible.
“I know I wouldn’t be able to leave [an abuser] if I couldn’t bring my pet,” she says and didn’t want to ask survivors to do so either. The whole process, from the initial walkthrough by RedRover and Greater Good, to having a dog run through their hallways, took about a year. Amazingly, only a week of that was actually spent on site doing the construction—the rest of the time was training that was provided to help the facility prepare to be pet-friendly.
Now, Safe Voices touts dog-friendly rooms with side tables that double as crates. There are rooms with cat trees and climbing platforms for furry family members to explore. There are rooms attached to secure outdoor dog runs so dogs have the freedom to come and go outside as they need to. There is a large outdoor kennel area for dogs who need to be in a separate space.
Johansen says the number of four-legged survivors in shelter varies week-to-week.
“We’ve had as many as six dogs and three cats but then another time you just have one dog. We’ve also had guinea pigs and a cat that gave birth as soon as she came in.”
She says she’s grateful for the strong relationship Safe Voices has with the local humane society, which provides spaying and neutering services and some free vaccines, as well as food, leashes and other supplies. They also help the shelter find temporary and secret (for safety reasons) foster homes for those animals who can’t come into shelter but need a safe place until more permanent housing can be found.
“Survivors love it,” says Johansen, though she acknowledges that it isn’t always smooth sailing. It can get noisy, sometimes. And not everyone loves a barking dog. Then there’s the issue of traumatized animals. After abuse, some pets can be understandably frightened and reactive. Sometimes, this means a dog might need a cloth muzzle to keep everyone safe. But Johansen acknowledges that for every challenge they’ve encountered, they’ve found a workable solution, except for one.
“It’s still really hard when we don’t have enough room for all of the shelter requests we get on a daily basis,” she says.
To those shelters thinking of going pet-friendly, Johansen says this: “Feel the fear, but do it anyway. There’s so much help. There’s so many of us who have done it and gotten through the hurdles. No one who wants to do this is going to feel alone.”
Unintended Surprise Benefits
The benefits of a shelter going pet-friendly extend even beyond the pet’s and pet owner’s safety. Having pets on site can provide therapeutic benefits for other survivors and staff and especially, kids during trauma.
Campbell shared the following story with permission. A shelter in Connecticut decided to become pet-friendly in 2019 with RedRover’s assistance. The executive director, admittedly not an animal-lover, told Campbell her view on accepting pets changed one day when a mom and her 7-year-old son sought shelter, but the survivor insisted she had to bring their dog with them. The director agreed and promised they’d figure something out.
When they arrived, the little boy was very shut down and struggling to adapt. He didn’t want to talk about what had happened at home. His dog was set up in a staff room with a crate, the same room where the boy would have counseling sessions. The little boy couldn’t open up to the advocate, so the advocate began to talk to the boy through the dog. Could he tell the dog what he’d been through?
“The little boy turns to the dog and tells him everything he experienced. The advocate and the boy aren’t talking to each other, they’re just talking to the dog,” Campbell recalls. “And the staff could learn what the boy experienced and now they know how to help him. If the dog hadn’t been in the room that day, would the little boy have gotten the help he needed?”
Campbell says the boy began to thrive at shelter, so much so that the staff lovingly made up the title “Junior Volunteer” just for him. He and his mom eventually got into long-term housing. Campbell says she just found out that the little boy, now a young man, was one of the shelter’s interns this past summer.
Your Help Needed
Currently, a little over 18 percent of domestic violence shelters in the U.S. are pet friendly, an impressive increase from where they started in 2010 when they were at just 10 percent. She says there are at least 340 animal-welcoming domestic violence shelters in the U.S. but they need to get at least another 116 on board by the end of 2025 to make their goal.
She’s optimistic it’ll happen.
“I think I’m a pragmatic realist—we do have a ways to go and I totally understand that. But we’re going to get to 25 percent.”
One of the biggest challenges is that it takes time to get organizations ready, she says. It’s not as easy as shipping over a few dog crates and litter boxes. The optional coaching program RedRover offers to teach shelters how to welcome animals can take roughly eight months to complete. It covers policies and procedures, walking through the design and construction process to expand the shelter’s space, and so much more. They currently have 33 organizations going through the coaching.
And if you’re currently enduring abuse and are afraid to leave your animals, read “Planning for Pet Safety.”
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