By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
What happens to pets during a domestic violence crisis?
Anna Ludvik is someone who can relate numerous heart-wrenching stories about neglect, abuse and the high price of needing to stay with a beloved four legged family member.
From pets tormented and tortured by abusive partners, to women who stay long after they should because they have nowhere to take their pets, and lovingly loyal animals heartbrokenly abandoned when the victim finally has no choice but to flee.
And that’s why Ms Ludvik has started a global movement, spearheaded from Lismore on the far north coast of New South Wales, involving more than 200 domestic violence and animal welfare organisations around the globe.
‘Lucy’s Project’ aims to raise awareness of the impact domestic violence can have on pets. The organisation recently received an Australia Day Honour, and will host an international conference about domestic violence and pets in Melbourne later this year.
Pets as victims
“We’ve seen animals as victims in many ways, the animal is often attacked instead of the human as a way of psychological control against the human: ‘if you don’t do what I say I’ll do to you what I’ve done to the dog’,” says Anna Ludvik.
“We often see the pets victimised alongside the humans. Often the animal is not physically attacked themselves but it’s been the defender of the human.
“Sometimes we see status dogs where the animal has been used as a way to menace the human victim: ‘If you don’t do what I say I’ll set the dog on you’.”
Staying in abusive relationships
Victims of domestic violence are more likely to stay in an abusive environment if there is nowhere for them to take their four legged friend, with figure suggesting that as many as 40% of women stayed in, or delayed leaving, a violent situation because of a pet.
Ms Ludvik says Lucy’s Project wants to turn that around – to help victims find emergency accommodation that will allow them to keep their pet or, alternatively, to locate safe options for the pet to be looked after until the family is settled away from an abusive environment.
One animal rescuer says about 30 per cent of the pets she looks after have come from abusive homes, and that rescue organisations are struggling to keep up with demand.
‘It’s only a dog’
Those with pets know they can become much more than ‘just an animal’, and frontline workers point out that breaking the bond in times of crisis can add to the emotional trauma of domestic violence – for both the human and pet.
Victims relate stories about their pets providing comfort during hopeless times – and even being their reason to keep living.
Although some may not understand why a party would stay in a violent relationship for the sake of a pet, one victim tried to explain it by saying – “You’d never say to a woman, ‘pick which child you are going to take with you’, you’d take them all.”
Pets are, however, starting to be formally recognised as victims of domestic violence, with the Victorian Government dedicating $100,000 in 2015 to fund protection programs for pets of those fleeing abusive relationships.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data suggests that 17% of women (about 1.6 million) and 6% of men (547,600) have experienced violence by a partner.
And in the past few years, many victims have publicly shared their harrowing stories on forums such as the ABC’s Open Drum, in an effort to help people understand what constitutes domestic violence and why it is not easy to simply leave a violent situation.
A significant amount of government funding has also been directed towards frontline domestic violence services, but many feel we still have a long way to go in order to address the situation.