Victims of violence, their pets often have ‘common bond’

If a man or woman harms a spouse or child physically, emotionally or sexually, it’s likely that spouse or child isn’t the offender’s only victim of abuse. If people can harm fellow human beings, research shows, it’s easy for them to hurt a pet. If a greater number of Mainers — including animal control officers, school counselors and veterinarians — know about the connection between animal abuse and interpersonal violence, and know what to do about it, there’s a greater chance intervention could save someone’s life.

Gabriela Rodriguez, 55, of Kennebunk, is one of a few people in Maine working to highlight what’s sometimes called “the common bond.” Abuse of an animal is often not an isolated incident but a red flag that others in the household might not be safe. Most often, abusers have access to smaller pets, such as dogs and cats. It’s important, Rodriguez said, to remember that larger animals, such as horses, are also at risk. Abuse doesn’t discriminate.

Though Maine has strong animal protection laws — earning the No. 2 rank in 2012 from the Animal Legal Defense Fund — much more can be done to illuminate the abuse link and to bridge divides between human and animal services.

Mandated reporters like teachers and counselors, who are required by law to tell the Maine Department of Health and Human Services of suspected child abuse, should also report if they suspect animal abuse happening in the home of a child. In the same way, animal control officers who see mistreated animals should report if they have a reasonable belief children are also at risk.

In addition, more social service agencies can ask about the treatment of pets on intake forms. Maine law continues to improve: This year the Maine Legislature passed legislation to give judges the authority to include pets on temporary protection from abuse orders.

Rodriguez is a member of the York County Linkage Coalition, which formed in 2010 to educate communities about the connection between animal cruelty, child abuse, domestic violence and other forms of interpersonal violence. She also helps run Blixx Horses to educate the public about horses and their care. Her two horses have visited local schools to interact with students in kindergarten through grade 12, area hotels for public presentations and senior living communities to provide therapy for residents.

The Blixx team includes horses Lexxie and Fritz and their owners, Gabriela Rodriguez and Dan Quinn.

Rodriguez’s work focuses not just on creating awareness about the link between animal abuse and interpersonal violence but on the positive: helping people appreciate animals and treat them humanely.

“If we view life or if we view an animal with such an uncaring attitude and with disregard, why would we not view human life the same way? I think if you care enough to try and take good care of animals then that can be extended to people as well,” Rodriguez said. “It’s empathy.”

In one 1999 study, more than 71 percent of battered women reported their batterers had harmed, killed or threatened animals. Seventy-five percent of those incidents happened in the presence of the women or children as a way to coerce and humiliate them. Another study found that 68 percent of battered women reported their animals had been subject to violence, with 87 percent of incidents occurring in the presence of the women and 75 percent occurring in the presence of children.

The effects on children can be long-lasting, said Leah Paltanawick, prevention educator for Kids Free to Grow in Kennebunk and another member of the York County Linkage Coalition. Seeing pets abused, let alone a loved one, can lead children to imitate abusive behaviors or come to accept physical abuse. It’s traumatic for children to see their pets hurt, and the trauma has the potential to affect children as they grow — harming their future health and productivity. Pet abuse by children is one of several predictors for determining who is at higher risk of becoming a batterer.

Those fleeing domestic violence can find a listing of safe havens for pets on the Humane Society of the United States website. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and would like to talk with an advocate, call 866-834-4357. This free, confidential service is available 24/7 and is accessible from anywhere in Maine.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.