Mikkel Becker's Pugs Bruce and Willy

We love our pets — often, they are like family to us. But when a family dynamic is damaged by abuse or neglect, pets can suffer just like their humans.

In domestic abuse, an abuser often exploits a victim’s devotion to a pet to control and manipulate that victim. Too often, abuse victims feel trapped and unable to seek help because they fear for the safety of their pets if they leave. According to the Urban Resource Institute (URI), a provider of domestic violence programs and services in New York City, up to 65 percent of domestic violence victims and 48 percent of battered women delay leaving a dangerous situation out of concern for their pets. (In May of 2013, URI launched a specific program, Urban Resource Institute People and Animals Living Safely, or URIPALS, that houses victims of abuse and their pets.)

I am sympathetic to abuse victims who stay: A few years back, I found myself trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship and delayed leaving for the sake of my dogs. At the time, I felt alone and ashamed; I was unable to reach out for help because I believed that no one would understand my situation. Today, though, I know that my story is one shared by many victims of emotional and physical abuse.

The Cycle of Abuse

Growing up, I was a people pleaser, wanting others to like and approve of me. As a teenager, I sought validation from outsiders and learned to put my own needs last. In my early 20s I became involved with a man who preyed on my desire to please. His constant manipulation, unpredictable anger, injurious words, degrading conduct and unfaithful actions left me in a perpetual state of confusion and anxiety. I started to believe him when he blamed me for the problems in our relationship.

And yet I stayed with him, despite knowing that it was dangerous for me to do so. I stayed because my critically low self-esteem made it hard to believe that I deserved unconditional love and care. But what really prevented me from leaving the relationship was the terrifying prospect of what would happen to my two Pugs, Bruce and Willy, if I tried to stand up to my abuser or leave him outright. He made it clear that if we split up, he would keep one of the Pugs, even though it was also clear that he had no sincere interest in the dogs. He used them, and his knowledge of my love for them, to control me.

In fact, my Pugs were the stable ground I clung to during the storm of emotional abuse and neglect I faced. Their unceasing affection and unparalleled loyalty was a safe harbor for me. Whenever I felt weighed down with discouragement and despair, their wet kisses, wiggly snuggles and donut-shaped tail wags inspired me to keep coming up for air.

In the end, it was the dogs that saved me from the abuse. I had resigned myself to the fact that this was life as I would know it and had come to believe that I did not deserve any better. But as soon as I saw my dogs in danger, I knew I had to leave.

Rescuing Bruce — And Myself

One quick interaction changed my whole world. I was in my bedroom getting ready to go out and suddenly I heard a scream. I bolted into to the hallway and saw my abuser standing over Bruce with his clenched fist raised. He had pinned the Pug to the floor with his other hand and was preparing to deliver another blow when he saw me there.

I felt so many things in that moment — heartbreak, terror, repulsion, fury, shame. I was raised to believe that a person’s true character is revealed in the way he treats a helpless animal. In my mind, anyone who mistreats or hurts an animal is evil. In that moment, I confronted the truth that I was in a relationship with someone who was dangerous in ways I could not even understand. I could no longer make excuses for him, give him the benefit of the doubt or even hope that he would somehow change. I knew in that instant that I was finally seeing him for who he was.

I swept Bruce into my arms and, for the first time, I stood up to my abuser: I told him that if he ever threatened or touched either dog again in a harmful way I would call the police and leave for good.

In hindsight, I know that I should have left him right then, but I didn’t. His tearful, pleading remorse made me feel responsible, like it was my job to stay and help him change. But more than that I feared that if I did take action, he would retaliate by taking the dogs — or worse.

The Road to Safety

While I didn’t leave him immediately, I did reach out to family and friends after that incident. I had cut myself off from the people who loved me, largely out of shame, but when I told them what had happened — and what had been happening — they urged me to leave him and get to a safe place. Eventually, I found the strength to do what they asked, even though I was terrified for myself and for my dogs.

Unfortunately, my worst fear came true: My abuser chose to keep Bruce with him, sending Willy with me. Driving away from our home and my beloved dog, I was hysterical. My tears were partially from relief, but mostly they were shed in grief of the loss of one of my dogs and the danger he faced as a result.

My constant prayer during those days of separation and the resulting legal battle was that I would be able to keep both of my dogs. And that’s exactly what happened: My prayers were answered and the Pugs and I were able to move forward together to heal from our years of abuse and sadness.

My story has a happy ending, but there are thousands of other pet owners just like me. I stand as one among many, many victims who have remained imprisoned in an abusive relationship because they fear leaving their beloved pet behind. Unfortunately, pets, who are often the victims’ greatest source of support, are frequently used as leverage by the abuser to intimidate and threaten the victim and prevent her from leaving. This may include everything from neglect or physical injury to the pet’s death.

Finding Solutions for Abuse Victims and Their Pets

According to data reported by URI, 87 percent of batterer-perpetrated incidents of pet abuse are committed in the presence of the victim for the purpose of revenge or control. Children are also devastated by the abuse inflicted on pets: 76 percent of animal cruelty in the home occurs in front of children. Frequently these children will intervene or allow themselves to be victimized to save their pets from being harmed or killed.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of domestic violence shelters are not set up to support or house pets: Only an estimated 5 percent of shelters nationwide support pets with onsite housing.

By contrast, a national survey found that 85 percent of women in domestic violence shelters reported incidents of a pet being harmed by their abuser, while 63 percent of children discussed pet abuse in their family. In addition, animals were abused in 88 percent of homes where child physical abuse was present and abusers of animals are five times as likely to harm humans. Abusers tend to isolate their victims, both socially and financially, which makes it extremely challenging for the victims to obtain outside support or assistance — and this is compounded when a pet is involved.

Often this means that even when resources like shelters and support programs are available, a victim may choose to remain with an abuser rather than abandon a pet in a dangerous situation. This is often a no-win situation for the victim: According to URI, 71 percent of pet owners entering women’s shelters reported that their batterer had injured, maimed, killed or threatened family pets for revenge or to psychologically control a victim.

Thankfully, there are a growing handful of domestic violence resources across the country that provide support for both pets and people. Such shelters allow both human and animal victims to flee to safety together — and in doing so remove one of the greatest barriers for abuse victims seeking help. These shelters also provide veterinary care for pets, who in many cases are in dire need of medical attention. Safe havens that support both pets and people also provide an opportunity for human family members to receive comfort from the ongoing support of a pet as they journey to healing together.

I am in a better place now. While Bruce is no longer with us, Willy and my daughter Regan and I have built a wonderful life with my new husband, Ben. But it is important to me to share my story, in the hope that other abuse victims will find the strength to walk away and find a safe place for themselves and their pets.

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