Companion animals and domestic violence

by Vaile H Companion Magazine Editor
17 Jan 2019
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In 2017 two Flinders University researchers, Dr Heather Fraser and Associate Professor Nik Taylor embarked on a collaborative project with the Northern Domestic Violence Service (NDVS) in Adelaide and Relationships Australia South Australia (RASA) to raise community awareness of the link between domestic/family violence for women, children and companion animal survivors.

They wanted to explore the importance of human-animal connections for many people, especially during family crises and/or while recovering from domestic abuse.

The project, called “Loving you, Loving me” had two distinct parts: (1) a qualitative research study based on in-depth interviews with domestic violence survivors and (2) a photographic exhibition open to the general public, featuring attractive, non-identifying images of domestic violence survivors enjoying time with their animals.

Companion editor, Heather Vaile asked Nik to tell us how the project came about, what they learned along the way, and how she hopes the project will contribute to improving the way we help human and animal survivors of domestic violence in Australia.

Back in the autumn of 2016, Nik Taylor and Heather Fraser were sitting in a small, bright office at Flinders University overlooking the Adelaide hills. They were in Nik’s office, discussing new projects for the year.

Both researchers are devoted animal lovers and share an academic interest in social work, sociology, and human-animal relations.

They began to mull over some ideas for a new research project on domestic violence and pets with the goal of shifting the focus from abusers to the survivors, and highlighting the deep bond many women and children fleeing violence share with their animal companions.

“We’d been doing various projects where we’d been using visual methods to include animals in our work and we’d done some previous work around domestic violence and animals, so we knew that the links were there,” Nik says.

“But we wanted to find a way where instead of just repeating the fact that there is a link between domestic violence and pets, we could look at it in a slightly different and more uplifting way that would include the animals literally or at least visually.

“So we came up with the idea of picturing animals with people who had survived domestic violence with their humans and who were now on the other side of it. The focus could be how the animals themselves had become healthier afterwards and also how they’d helped their humans to recover.

“And from that we got the idea of the art exhibition, which had the added advantage of being able to translate academic work – which can often be really dry and dull – over to the general public. We wanted to get the public talking about two issues which people routinely turn away from – and they are animal abuse and domestic violence.

“We really felt it was important to highlight that animals are affected by domestic violence too, and that many of these same animals often have a huge role to play helping women and children in their post-trauma recovery.”

The first challenge was how and where to recruit domestic violence survivors with pets for the study. And this is where the Northern Domestic Violence Service (NDVS) in the Elizabeth region of South Australia came into the picture.

“A former colleague of Heather’s that we bumped into at a conference told us that the NDVS actually offered on-premises accommodation for companion animals to stay with their humans, which is extremely rare in Australia,” explains Nik.

“So we went to speak to Julie Felus, who is the manager there, and spent about three hours one afternoon in their boardroom, just talking through the issues that they face as a service offering on-site accommodation for animals staying with the women there.

“Most domestic violence centres offer fostering services or kennel services, but we really wanted to highlight the work that the NDVS is doing – because it is an absolute rarity.

“And as good as the fostering and kennel services are, and as desperately needed as they are, these other types of services are also needed because women need to stay with their animals and keep the parts of the family together that are healthy and helping them.”

Along with Nik and Heather, the NDVS staff also reached out to Relationships Australia South Australia (RASA) to assist with contacting more survivors for the interviews and to invite them to collaborate on the photographic exhibition.

“We couldn’t have done this project without them,” says Nik “because women in postdomestic violence recovery are often still in hiding from the men they’re trying to get away from and it’s incredibly difficult for researchers to source them.”

Throughout 2017, Nik and Heather did in-depth interviews with nine domestic violence survivors. The women they talked to ranged in age from being in their early twenties to around their late forties, and all had least one companion animal in their family.

“Most of them had children and most of them were with the animal that experienced the violence when they were in the abusive relationship, although some had had to surrender their pet and had gone on to get another animal because they missed the companionship,” Nik adds.

A number of other survivors who were approached for the project were happy to take part in the photo shoot and art exhibition but preferred not to be interviewed.

Nik and Heather, who are both survivors of domestic abuse themselves, say they specifically focused on interviewing women for the project, partly because they knew that statistically women make up the majority of domestic violence victims, but also because they knew companion animals tend to be caught up in the heterosexual domestic violence dynamic. They also wanted to honour the idea of the research being a feminist project, looking at the impacts of violence on women.

The researchers used semi-structured questioning techniques for the interviews, but allowed the course of the conversation to be guided by the women themselves.

“We wanted to hear what they prioritised, not what we prioritised,” says Nik, “because it can be incredibly traumatic for women to re-tell these types of experiences.

“More often than not, their animals would give them some signal, as if they understood when their human was upset, and they’d jump on their lap, they’d paw them, they’d lick their face or just come in and check on them – which was gorgeous.”

She adds that she was surprised to find how much she underestimated how hard it was going to be to do the project and listen to survivors’ stories.

“There were numerous times when a women’s dog would sit on my knee during the interview, and it certainly helped me too.”

“In some ways having the animals there during the interviews made it better and in other ways it made it worse. Because some had bounced back remarkably well but others, you could see in their behaviour, they were still quite timid and quite scared and that was hard to see.

“They were very long days for us because it was a two-hour drive north to where the interviews were done, then usually two hours in an interview and then another two-hour drive back, just to do one interview.

“So we’d both be exhausted when we got back, and I found I just wanted to hide afterwards. I didn’t want to speak to people, I just wanted to cuddle my dogs. There were times when I struggled to get my mind off it and pull away from it.”

Major themes and key findings from the research

Heather and Nik found that one of the major themes transpiring from their conversations with survivors was the unconditional love that animals offer to their humans and how incredibly important pets are to people who have survived traumatic events and circumstances.

Nik emphasises that “to women who’ve been consistently told that they’re worthless and not worthy of love – this is tremendously powerful in helping them get over what’s happened.

“The other really important issue that came up,” she says, “which is slightly more difficult to address, is just how badly the animals suffer, not just when they are actually in the violent situation, but also in terms of some of the emotional labour that they’re expected to do afterwards with the women and children when the family is healing together.

“There’s a toll there on the animal, no matter how good a home they are now in. And that’s something worth considering when we start thinking about how to help women and animals in these situations.”

Nik and Heather are now writing up the findings of their study in a book to be called Rescuing Me, Rescuing You: Companion Animals and Domestic Violence, which will be published by Palgrave towards the end of 2018. But they are willing to share two key findings from the research immediately:

“Firstly, we need to recognise that animals matter to these women and recognise it in a non-judgemental way,” Nik says.

“We need to stop making them feel foolish for the choices they make around protecting those animals and staying with them.

“These women they love their animals dearly. They often remain in dangerous situations longer than they need to, purely because they don’t want to leave or surrender their animals. Their animals just mean so much to them and their children.

“And the second thing is, that we need way more services to (a) acknowledge that animals matter and (b) to find ways of opening up services where women and animals can stay together, rather than protecting the animals by fostering them away from the women.

“That’s the biggest thing really, that whole idea that they need to stay together, that they are family and that the healing process that goes on in families includes the animals. The animals are a massive part of that healing process, both in terms of helping their humans heal and also in healing themselves. The best way to do that is to allow those families to remain together.”

Nik and Heather’s findings echo those of Dr Catherine Tiplady, Clive Phillips, and Deborah-Anne Bernadette Walsh, who in 2012 published a research article called "Intimate partner violence and companion animal welfare" in the Australian Veterinary Journal. This study with 26 domestic violence survivors found that:

Most women in the current study were not aware of, and were unwilling to use, emergency pet accommodation services to enable them to flee a violent partner, citing attachment to the animal as the main reason. A recommendation from this study is that, for maximum emotional support during rehabilitation from violence, women, children and animals be housed together if at all possible ... Housing both women and pets together after the common experience of abuse would enable the emotional bond and a semblance of routine to be maintained during a time of stress. Increased promotion of accommodation options for women and animals fleeing violence is also needed.1

Significantly, the same research also noted that:

Behavioural changes in the animals in this study were often long-term, with commonly reported issues such as fear of men and anxiety persisting longer than the [interpersonal violence] IPV relationship and sometimes for the entire life of the animal. The ability of these animals to assimilate to life in a foster home, animal shelter or boarding kennel is therefore likely to be compromised.”2

The loving you, loving me photography exhibition

Many of the women who took part in the Flinders University research project were also photographed with their children and pets by volunteers from the Mawson Lakes Photography Club, in Mawson Lakes, a new suburb which sits about 12 kilometres north of Adelaide. The photographs were artistically shot to help de-identify the participants and copies of the images were given to each survivor afterwards.

Nik explains that “creating new memories is really important for women and children who have fled violence, often without being able to take their family photos or other personal effects with them.

“It was not only a nice experience for the survivors to be working with photographers to create beautiful and lasting images of their cross-species families, but it also had the added advantage of helping solidify their relationships with their case workers, who took the pictures to them, and shared their joy in them.”

The exhibition was launched at The Mawson Centre in Mawson Lakes, Adelaide and may go on tour in similar public spaces in the ACT and NSW in 2018, if appropriate funding can be found.

Nik, Heather and Carley Milich (from the NDVS) spoke at the exhibition launch about how important companion animals were to the women and children survivors involved and to their recovery post-abuse. Betty, an assistance dog, also insisted on making her presence known by snoring loudly all the way through Nik’s talk!

The exhibition proved to be a great drawcard for local journalists and organisers of public spaces who were interested in showcasing the works, and helped to draw public and media attention to the ongoing problem of domestic violence and animal abuse.

What can vets do to help?

Remember that domestic violence can occur in any postcode of Australia and affects people from all walks of life. You may be the first person to see evidence of domestic violence when you are treating an injured pet.

If you suspect an animal you are treating – or have repeatedly treated – is a victim of domestic violence, the following states have RSPCA programs or temporary shelters which may be able to help. However, the numbers listed below are not emergency services and may only operate during normal business hours. Additionally, some pet fostering programs require the case worker from the refuge or shelter where the survivor is being housed to make contact.

New South Wales – Safe Beds for Pets:
(02) 9782 4408

Victoria – Pets in Peril:
(03) 9739 0300

Queensland – Pets in Crisis:
1800 811 811

South Australia – Pets in Crisis:
(08) 9209 9336

Western Australia – Pets in Crisis:
(08) 9209 9300

Tasmania – Safe Beds for Pets:
(03) 6244 3033

State government funding for these types of programs is often finite and services may come and go over time. For that reason, the RSPCA in your state or territory is always a good first point of contact. In some areas, local councils, community groups or social workers may also be able to help.

Understand that domestic violence victims may be unwilling to confide in their veterinarian for fear of not being believed, judged or the repercussions that will follow if their abuser finds out.3 They may also be limited in their financial and social interactions because of controlling behaviours by the offender.4

However, you can help by putting up domestic violence information brochures and helpline phone numbers in your vet practice or hospital, and by visiting the excellent website www.mysavinggrace.org.au to learn more about this subject. You may also like to watch out for Dr Lydia Tong’s extensive research study on domestic violence and pets, due to be published in 2018 and view/ listen to Lydia’s podcastPLUS on diagnosing and managing suspected non-accidental injury in veterinary practice.

If you want to do even more on a practical level, you may like to contact the relevant number listed in this article to find out where you can offer pro bono or reduced cost veterinary services to help animal and human victims of domestic violence in your local area.

Editor's note

Dr Heather Fraser is now working at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) as an associate professor in social science and a coordinator of the master of social work and can be contacted here if anyone wishes to make contact. Nik is still working at Flinders University and can be contacted here.

References

ABC news website, ‘Fact file: Domestic violence in Australia’, updated 15 April 2016 <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-04-06/fact-file-domestic-violence-statistics/7147938> viewed 21 November 2017

Ascione F, Emerging Research on Animal Abuse as a Risk Factor for Intimate Partner Violence, 2007 <https://www.amrric.org/sites/default/files/Intimate_Partner_Violence_Ascione.pdf> pp 8-9, viewed 26 November 2017

Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety Limited (ANROWS) <https://anrows.org.au/resources/media/media-releases/intimate-partner-violencecontributes-highest-health-risk-women-aged> viewed 28 November 2017

AVA website <http://www.ava.com.au/news/media-centre/hot-topics-4> and <http://www.ava.com.au/13451> viewed 21 November 2017

My Saving Grace website, Resources section, Quick Reference Facts <www.mysavinggrace.org.au> viewed 22 November 2017

Tiplady, CM, Walsh DB and Phillips CJC, Intimate partner violence and companion animal welfare in the Aust Vet J , Vol. 90, No. 1-2, Jan/Feb 2012, pp 48- 5 Tong, L. J. Unpublished data, 2017

  1. Tiplady, CM, Walsh DB and Phillips CJC, Intimate partner violence and companion animal welfare in the Aust Vet J, Vol. 90, No. 1-2, Jan/Feb 2012, p 52
  2. Ibid, p 51
  3. Ibid, p 52
  4. Ibid

This article originally appeared in the AVA Australian Small Animal Veterinarians Group Companion Magazine, Q1 2018

If you need immediate help, contact:

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1800RESPECT: 1800 737 732

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