Victims of Abuse Provide Safe Haven with Pets


The non-profit Urban Resource Institute (URI) in New York City initiated a test program in 2013 for people to co-shelter – safe from domestic abuse – with their pet(s), called URIPALS.

Residents fleeing abuse overwhelmingly said that URIPALS not only allowed a way out, the program provided families a way to stay together, as pets are considered members of the family. Having their pets with them served as a kind of therapy.

Last October, URI hosted a round table discussion in New York City with various experts in the fields of domestic abuse and animal welfare to discuss the positive outcomes of URIPALS, as well as a frank discussion about any shortcomings. URI is seeking to expand URIPALS both in the Big Apple, and also to use the innovative program as a model for other cities across the country as most shelters currently don’t allow for co-sheltering with animals.

“Replicating URIPALS will save lives,” said Allie Phillips, Lansing, MI-based founder of Sheltering Animals & Families Together (SAF-T), and author of “Defending the Defenseless: A Guide to Protecting and Advocating for Pets,” (Rowan & Littlefield/Glob Pequot, Guilford, CT; 2011; $42). “About two-thirds of homes have a pet; if a shelter is unable to accommodate a family with pets, they are not able to serve potentially two-thirds of their community.”

“The need was obvious,” conceded URI President CEO Nat Fields.

Here’s why: There are 164 million pet dogs and cats in America (American Pet Products Association National Pet Owners Survey, 2015-2016); 65 percent of all homes have a pet.

Pets are ubiquitous, so it’s no surprise that pets are also homes where’s there’s domestic violence, which is also ubiquitous. One in five women and one in seven men have been victims of physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. In 2012, U.S. state and local child protective services received an estimated 3.4 million referrals of children being abused or neglected, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration

Marie Philip, deputy commissioner of the Office for Domestic Violence, New York City Human Resources Administration said she’s unsure if there is more domestic violence today than say five or ten years ago, as much as the stigma of leaving the abusive situation is gradually diminishing and domestic abuse is being reported more often as a result. “We are in need of innovative programs to give people whatever helps to encourage them to leave an abusive situation, and URIPALS does just that,” she said.

“Abuse often begins when the abuser practices on the family pet,” Allie Phillips added.

However, because pets are considered a part of the family people are reluctant to flee an abuser when the pet is threatened. “Abuse is about doing physical harm, but abuse is also about control,” said certified dog trainer Mikkel Becker of Seattle, WA

“We’re experts on housing people, not pets,” added Fields. “We couldn’t have done this without partners. “ They include the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) who lent pet behavior advice for URIPALS protocols and policies, as well as spay/neuter and basic veterinary needs for the dogs and cats moving into the shelters. Purina began as a partner to help provide pet food, as the company became more involved they even financed a dog park at a sheltering facility.

Aside from keeping the entire family together, which is especially important for children, pets shelter housing has proved valuable, even to residents who don’t have pets. Dr. Kurt Venator of Purina isn’t surprised. “Numerous studies demonstrate that pets elevate mood, releasing feel-good hormones, like serotonin and oxytocin. Having a dog encourages physical activity. Put simply, pets support health and healing.”

“Pets also provide companionship and stability to adults, but especially children, who have often re-located to another part of town when they move into a shelter,” Phillips said.

URI Pals Shelter protocols do have some restrictions which not everyone is a fan. For example, when in common areas, all dogs must be muzzled. Also, any dog over 45 lbs. isn’t eligible, solely because of size. Jane Hoffman, president of the New York City Mayor’s Alliance noted that too many good dogs, often pit bull-type dogs are being left out – which means those families can’t participate.

Hoffman is quick to add, “Other cities need to do this too – lives are saved, animal lives and human lives.”

©Steve Dale PetWorld, LLC; Tribune Content Agency