Fear, threats of harm and physical abuse can be employed as weapons to detain and control victims of domestic violence.
Some stay in unsafe situations because of threats made against themselves, their children and even the family pet.
Threatening or hurting the family pet is one of the first things an abuser may use as leverage against a victim of domestic violence, said Jan Christiansen, the associate director for the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Ahimsa House is the only organization in Georgia that directly addresses this problem.
Instead of only offering aid to women in abusive situations, their mission is “helping the human and animal victims of domestic violence reach safety together.”
For Maya Gupta, the president of Ahimsa House and a UGA alumna, working for this cause has been a dream come true.
But she feels the real reward comes from the people the organization has helped.
“It’s when someone says to you, if it hadn’t been for Ahimsa House, I never would have left the abuse,” she said.
Since 2007, the policy of Ahimsa House has been to find foster homes for the animals while the victims are in shelters. The ultimate goal is to reunite the owners with their pets.
Barriers to this goal are heightened by the economy, according to Gupta. It is difficult for people to find jobs and housing, especially animal friendly housing.
However, statistics calculated by Ahimsa House show that in 2009, almost 90 percent of owners were successfully reunited with their pets.
Sandy Leath, a client of Ahimsa House, believes the organization is a lifesaver.
She had been dealing for 10 months to a year with increasingly serious verbal abuse and threats from her fiancé at the time, coupled with his abuse of alcohol.
For about six of those months, she received voicemails and text messages threatening her three cats with harm and neglect. The worst came when she got a text message claiming one of the three cats was dead.
“I didn’t have any place to take them,” she said, “We’re a unit, I love them and they’re my responsibility.”
Christiansen described animals in abusive homes as silent victims. “Pets often bear the brunt of abuse, because the abuser knows there will be no repercussions,” she said. “They can have an effect on a family member without actually hurting them.”
Christiansen acknowledges that for people not involved with domestic violence, it’s difficult to make the connection between it and animal abuse.
“It’s really easy to see a woman with a black eye and equate that to domestic violence,” she said. “It’s easy to see a child with bruises or burn marks and equate that to a caregiver who is abusing them, it’s really hard to see those signs on an animal.”
According to Leath, who found Ahimsa House in a brochure while applying for a temporary restraining order, the organization came through on everything they promised. They were even able to keep her cats together, a special request of hers.
The cats are back with Leath now, and she feels nothing but gratitude toward the foster family.
“They were so happy,” she said, “I could just tell they had been well cared for. It was a joyful moment, a real way to begin my life anew."
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