published Monday, March 24th, 2014

From Pet to Person: Experts say pet abuse is often a sign of domestic violence

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The abuse case was grisly — 27 dogs, four cats, a parrot, three children and an elderly woman held captive in a house at the mercy of two abusers.

Charles Brown has worked in animal sheltering for more than 20 years, yet that case last year from Terre Haute, Ind., is one that comes instantly to mind. The city’s Humane Society had been called to investigate after the sheriff’s department received a noise complaint about the house. Once they saw the heinous conditions inside, the animals were confiscated, Children’s Services was called, and the parents were arrested.

Executive director of the Pet Placement Center in Red Bank, Brown has seen more animal abuse cases than he would ever want to remember. But abuse of a pet may be just the start, he says, because it often is the first sign that there may be abuse of people in a home.

“Cruelty is rarely directed at just one entity,” Brown says.

They say you can tell a lot about a man from the way he treats his mom. The same goes for how he treats his dog — or your dog, for that matter.

“We get calls from women who say they want to leave their abuser, but are afraid of what will happen to their animals when they leave,” says Carmen Huston, director of the Crisis Resource Center at the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults. “Abuse is about a will to power and control. If you’re willing to do something bad to a dog, you might be willing to do it to a person. It doesn’t take much to cross that line.”

According to the American Humane Association, 70 percent of women admitted to domestic violence shelters say their abuser also hurt a pet in the family. An abuser might hurt a beloved pet in front of their victim, using the animal as a pawn to keep someone in a relationship or maintain control.

The Partnership includes pet placement as part of its safety plan for victims of abuse, she says. A pet might be sent to a friend or family member that the abuser doesn’t know because an angry abuser might try to track down a fleeing victim by finding out where the pet is.

Many shelters will take care of pets while a woman finds safety. McKamey Animal Care and Adoption Center offers to keep a pet for free for up to two weeks for owners fleeing an abusive situation.

A woman is abused every 15 seconds in the United States, the National Network to End Domestic Violence reports, yet domestic violence remains one of the most under-reported crimes. Animal abuse is reported much more frequently than domestic violence, domestic and animal abuse advocates agree.

“People feel more comfortable reporting an animal being mistreated,” says Miranda Keplinger, program manager for Family Services Counseling at the Partnership. “What they might not say is, ‘I also hear them yelling at night.’ People think it’s not their business.”

Animal control officers are required by Tennessee state law tell law enforcement about any signs of any kind of abuse in a home, says Jamie McAloon Lampman, executive director at McKamey. And although domestic abuse arrests are more difficult to make if a victim will not testify, sometimes an arrest can be made based on animal abuse charges, which is better than nothing, she says.

The stigma and secrecy surrounding domestic violence is why cross-referencing and cross-reporting between animal services and social services is so important, Lampman says. People are much more willing to let an animal control officer in the door than a police officer, she says.

“They don’t take us seriously. They let their guard down,” Lampman says.

Many will openly admit to animal control officers that they have been hurting animals, believing there will be no consequences. That lack of concern can be used to a pet officer’s advantage, she says, getting them in the door to suss out the situation.

Contact Anna Lockhart at alockhart@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6578.

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