Domestic violence shelter pioneers companion animal program

Would you flee a life-threatening situation if it meant leaving your best friend behind? Women who attempt to escape domestic abuse may face this heartbreaking decision when they flee an abusive situation, because domestic violence shelters rarely, if ever, allow pets. Many women will stay in an abusive situation, because they fear what may happen to the pet in their absence.
 
Fortunately, abuse survivors who arrive at the Harbor House domestic violence shelter in Marquette are able to find safety not only for themselves, but also for their beloved pets. Since 2013, Harbor House has partnered with the Sasawin Project to offer safe, temporary foster homes for domestic abuse survivors' pets. In the Anishinaabe language, Sasawin means nest, or safe place.
 
"A large percentage of women -- over 60 percent, by some accounts -- who are eligible to enter domestic violence shelters choose not to leave their abusive or violent situations because they have a companion animal that cannot be accommodated at the women’s shelter," says Cindy DePetro, Women's Center office coordinator. She says pets are often an abuse survivor's sole source of comfort.
 
"Pets are sometimes the only companion that a survivor has. The abuser often isolates their victims from family and friends. Pets offer unconditional love to their owners."
 
DePetro says most survivors' pets qualify as emotional support animals for their owners, and the Women's Center can assist with getting those pets certified as such, helping to keep the pets with the owners in the future as well.
 
The partnership between Sasawin and Harbor House was formed in September 2013, sparked by a chat between Helen Kahn, the Sasawin Project coordinator, and Sally May, one of the "founding mothers" of the Women's Center.
 
"I had a conversation about the association of animal abuse and cruelty with domestic violence with Sally May," says Kahn. "That conversation resulted in an 'a-ha' moment for me. I called Sally the very next day and asked her if she’d like to work with me on a way to protect these animals. We set up our first meeting within a few weeks with an informal committee made up of staff from the Upper Peninsula Animal Welfare Shelter, Northern Michigan University, and the Women’s Center to begin the discussion. Over time, this evolved into the Sasawin Project."
 
When a survivor calls the Harbor House or Women’s Center, the initial contact includes questions about whether there are animals in the home that need protection. The caller is told that the Women’s Center and Harbor House has a network of foster homes to care for their companion animals while the survivor resides at Harbor House or other temporary safe housing until safe, permanent safe housing is secured. Pets can be housed for up to 90 days in foster care, and that stay can be extended, if necessary. The Upper Peninsula Animal Welfare Shelter assists with identifying foster homes for survivors' pets.
 
Sasawin is funded through grants from the American Kennel Club, AKC Humane Foundation, and the Banfield Charitable Trust. The grants cover veterinary care, all costs associated with foster care, and animal behavior consultations, if necessary. Community donations are also accepted to support Sasawin. Kahn says the Sasawin Project "is affiliated with the Women’s Center, but we do not receive any direct funding through their grants. The Sasawin Project is self-supporting."

Knowing that their pets are in safe hands gives domestic abuse survivors peace of mind, which is a critical element in the process of healing and building a new life. Sasawin's safe place is a gift to both pets and their owners. For more information, or to volunteer, visit the project online here.
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