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CONTACT 13: When pets become pawns in domestic violence cases

Posted at 10:45 PM, Nov 01, 2016

They're part of the family that cannot be left behind. Innocent animals caught in the cycle of domestic violence. In 13 Action News' ongoing investigation into the depths of domestic abuse, Contact 13 examines how abusers use pets as pawns and how you can help fight back.

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Senaca: "It was horrible..."

Donna: "He'd hide in the closet."

There are many, many voices of domestic violence.

Rosa: "He killed my dog first and then a month later, that's when he tried to kill me."

Some victims can't say what happened and can't get away.

Senaca survived an abusive marriage where she wasn't the only victim of violence.

"Grabbing the dogs and hanging them out the window. He broke my other dog's leg."

Animals are often victims of domestic abuse themselves, but also used as a way for abusers to control, harass and threaten their victims, even keep them hostage in an abusive relationship.

When Senaca finally fled, she slept in her car until she found Shade Tree and Noah's Animal House -- the only domestic violence shelter in the state that takes pets.

"They are just as valuable as my life is. I love them just as much as I love my own children. And I couldn't stand to see if something bad was to happen, I would never forgive myself."

Donna and her Chihuahua, Dobby, have been together for 13 years. It's a relationship that's lasted much longer than the one she escaped.

"So he's getting a lot more open to people, but he still gets a little scared because of the abuse. Because he would hit him. And he would push him off the bed. He got jealous of him!"

While Donna and Senaca were able to save themselves and their dogs, Rosa Parra wasn't as lucky.

"He kicked him until he was dead, telling me that that's what was going to happen to me."

Detective Sandra Southwell with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department's recently created Animal Cruelty Unit is working to raise awareness about pet abuse as a predictor of violence against people.

"The animals can often be used to control the victim," Southwell explained.

She steers victims toward Noah's Animal House, which all involved say isn't nearly enough.

Marlene Richter, Shade Tree executive director, says, "Right now we're at 150 percent of capacity for women and children. We're at 125 percent of capacity for pets. But when it's a victim we can't say no!"

Richter says between 35 and 40 pets a day in Las Vegas are being rescued from domestic abuse, and many have to go to animal shelters. 

She wants to see more pets included in court protective orders.

"We need to make that easier. We need to have that as a standard."

She also says proving pet ownership needs to be removed as a stumbling block.

"An abuser will use all kinds of lies to say that the pet is theirs and to actually get into that kind of property ownership struggle."

71 percent of women seeking safety in shelters reported their abuser threatened, injured or killed their family pet. But only 2 percent of domestic violence shelters in the U.S. offer some form of pet services. 

Richter says doing more to bridge the gap is crucial.

"I have watched as the children sit with their pets in the lobby. And they're crying on their pet. And they're waiting and they're petting their best friend and hoping that this is going to be the time that it all ends."

There are currently no laws that protect the pets of domestic violence survivors. But there's a move to change that on the federal level. 

The Pet and Women Safety Act should hit Capitol Hill this fall. It would protect pets and cover veterinary costs in domestic violence and stalking offenses and include pets in funding for housing assistance and support services.

Shade Tree is set to open a second Noah's Animal House in Northern Nevada next spring.

But they need your help and ask when you shop for your own pet, shop for theirs too.