Changing Hawaii

By Diane Yukihiro Chang

Monday, April 12, 1999

Hurting pets can
signal human abuse

AN abuser summons his wife to the garage. When she appears, holding their baby, the husband hangs her pet rabbit and begins skinning it alive. Then he grabs the child from his wife's arms and holds the infant next to the screaming bunny. "See how easy it would be," he says.

This incident is spotlighted in the March issue of the "Advocacy in Action" newsletter put out by the Domestic Violence Clearinghouse. According to writer Carrie Koch, there is a little-known correlation between abuse of a household animal and concurrent or future violence against humans in the same family.

Koch tells of a man who slashed two pet cats to death and then threatened to sink a butcher knife into his wife and her dog. Not long after, she killed her husband in self-defense.

Another made his spouse sit and watch as he fatally shot the family sheepdog. Three months later, he murdered his wife and then committed suicide.

Batterers have chopped off the heads or legs of cats, crushed the breath from puppies, and nailed animals to the front porch.

So why don't terrified and abused women simply run away, and take their pets with them? The reasons are complicated and varied, but debilitating fear plays a big part -- fear for their safety, of having no place to go, and worry about their animals. Their pets must be left behind if they flee, since domestic-violence shelters don't accept them for health and safety reasons.

These women are right to worry about their beloved animals. Batterers intentionally target them as yet another way to threaten their human targets.

"Abusing animals accomplishes four things at once for the abuser," says Koch. "It demonstrates the batterer's power; maintains a sense of terror in the woman, making her fear for her life and her pet's life; induces the woman to stay or return to protect the pet; and, if the abuse results in the death of the animal, it also isolates the woman from a source of unconditional love and companionship."

The Hawaiian Humane Society to the rescue! The program offers foster care for companion animals of domestic-violence victims. The pets aren't housed at the Humane Society but at loving foster homes until their abused owners, mostly women, are able to find places to live. (For more information or to arrange such foster care, call 946-2187, ext. 217.)

THERE is one more thing that can be done by animal-loving neighbors and friends: On hearing a pet being tortured or in obvious distress, immediately call the Humane Society (946-2187, ext. 285). That phone call could save the pet, and might also save the lives of its owners.

Social welfare officials and animal-control officers work together to ascertain whether possible child and domestic violence are occurring in homes where pets are mistreated. "Often families who are investigated by child protective services or who (go to) domestic-violence shelters are also known by humane societies or local animal-control agencies for animal abuse," writes Koch.

Know why? No, it's not always because the violence starts with the pets but because -- now ponder this amazing fact -- people are more likely to report a ruckus next door when an animal is in distress than when a child or adult is possibly being hurt.

Need more proof? There are 3,800 animal shelters in this country. There are 1,500 shelters for battered women.

Diane Yukihiro Chang's column runs Monday and Friday.
She can be reached by phone at 525-8607, via e-mail at, or by fax at 523-7863.

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