The increase in domestic violence during the COVID-19 lockdown was described as a “shadow pandemic” by the United Nations.
New Zealand hasn’t been immune to the global rise and in many situations the abuse extends to household pets.
“This is a hidden issue that needs to be brought to light,” says Julie Chapman, the founder of Pet Refuge.
Chapman, who previously founded charity KidsCan, will open Pet Refuge next year – a free safe haven where people can leave their pets while they escape family violence and then be reunited once they’re back on their feet.
Chapman says Pet Refuge is dedicated to “removing the barrier people face when wanting to leave family violence”.
“During lockdown we had a lot of calls from people seeking help and from police asking when we’ll be open,” she says.
A 2018 Women’s Refuge survey showed that 53% of respondents didn’t leave their abuser when they wanted to out of fear for a pet’s safety.
More than 900 people, who were mainly women, were surveyed about ‘pet abuse as part of intimate partner violence’ and the results were harrowing.
The respondents were from across New Zealand and 45.3% of participants had experienced a partner threatening to harm, kill or get rid of an animal for the purpose of coercing them to do something.
Seventy three per cent said they would have left sooner if there had been somewhere for their pet to go and 22% had experienced a pet being killed by their abuser.
The pets owned by respondents were mainly cats and dogs, but other animals included rabbits, guinea pigs, fish, birds, horses, sheep, pigs, cows and goats.
Disturbing counts of abuse included psychological, physical and sexual abuse and respondents’ stories included descriptions such as: “He strangled my cats on almost a daily basis and wouldn’t feed them if I wasn’t there.”
When Chapman, who personally owns 10 cats, three dogs and two goats, heard about stories like these through her work with KidsCan, she felt compelled to help.
“Pets were being tortured and killed and being used as a means of control, so I wanted to help that situation and provide a safe place for them to be until they could be reunited,” she said.
New Zealand has one of the highest rates of pet ownership per capita in the world as well as one of the highest rates of family violence in the developed world – two issues which seem to be interlinked in cases like these.
Shine Advocate Team Manager Debbs Murray says, “There is such a raw vulnerability when coercive control is used that involves animals”.
"Often animals are the only genuine and honest relationship that an entrapped person has and there is such depth to that connection.
“Anecdotally, about 20-30% of the people our advocates support are in a situation involving coercion through abuse of pets which hinders the person’s ability to feel able to move into a place of safety.”
Murray says she looks forward to Pet Refuge opening.
“Until that time, our advocates have to do the best they can, when necessary, to work out arrangements with the SPCA or find some other ad hoc emergency accommodation for our clients’ pets.”
Pet Refuge also has partnerships with Jetpets and Air New Zealand to bring pets from anywhere in the country to the Auckland safe house.
The refuge is designed to house 24 dogs, 35 cats and 35 other smaller animals.
“Larger animals like horses and cows will be supported by a network of safe farms around New Zealand,” Chapman says.
“Some people have already offered their farms as safe havens for horses,” she said.
"Once this refuge is ready and we have our processes right, we hope to build a second and maybe third shelter in other parts of the country.
“We've been able to raise funds to build the shelter, but we still need people to get on board to support the interior, enclosures, health items, food and bedding for the pets,” she said.
The concept for Pet Refuge is based on a similar organisation in New South Wales, Australia, which houses pets for three to four months.
Chapman says that her shelter will keep the pets for as long as they need for their safety.
Pet Refuge is currently under construction at a protected location in Auckland and is set to be completed in the first quarter of 2021.
To learn more about Pet Refuge or to make a donation, go to petrefuge.org.nz