Helping women and their pets escape abusive relationships

When they realized most women's shelters do not accept pets, Ottawa organization PetSafe set out to do something about the issue. Brennan Linsley/AP file photo

You’ve gathered up your courage and you’re ready to leave your abusive partner, but shelters won’t accept your pet. So you stay.

That’s the situation facing many women in Canada who want to go but can’t bear to leave behind their animals, who are often subject to abuse as well and used to maintain control. The SafePet program, created by the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA), helps pets escape abusive homes along with their owners.

READ MORE: Why would someone stay with their abuser?

“I was aware to some extent about the use of animals to control and manipulate the behaviour of women who are in abusive situations,” said Ayala Sher, who has been a driving force behind getting PetSafe Ottawa up and running.

“[A pet is] the only thing in the world that doesn’t judge, doesn’t say, ‘Why aren’t you leaving? What’s the matter with you?'” Sher said.

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Nearly half of Ontario women (48 per cent) who left an abusive partner said a pet delayed their decision to leave, according to OSPCA data.

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The SafePet program was first created by the OVMA after veterinarians flagged the issue — women were asking to leave pets at their clinics as they fled an abusive home. This was not ideal for a few reasons: for one, an abuser might go looking for their pet, which poses safety concerns for staff. And the pets were often living in kennels for months at a time, until their owners were back on their feet.

“Veterinarians knew the pets really belonged in a home, but weren’t in the position to really set that network up,” said OVMA spokesperson Melissa Carlaw.

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SafePet’s solution was to place animals into foster homes until their owners are ready to care for them again. However, it’s a program that required dedication and organization, so it never fully got off the ground during its initial stages.

That is, until it fell onto Sher’s radar, who in late 2013 started connecting Safe Pets’ key players through her work with Ottawa Kennel Club. At a meeting in early 2014, “the presentation lasted about eight minutes before everyone moved their chairs in and we said, ‘Let’s get to work,'” she said.

Since its official launch in 2014, SafePet Ottawa has helped dozens of women and their pets.

WATCH: Victims of domestic abuse urged to seek help

What Sher spearheaded with SafePet Ottawa was “no small feat,” Carlaw points out.

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“She kind took the SafePet program and made it what we all dreamed it would be.”

The OVMA recently honoured Sher with its Honorary Membership Award. But Sher is quick to return the praise to her team, including local women’s shelters and the OVMA.

READ MORE: Why Canada still has a long way to go in tackling domestic abuse

“The OVMA stepped up,” Sher said. “We never could have done this without the OVMA SafePet protocol…the exceptional vets that we work with, [and] we couldn’t do this without fosters.

“When I got the award, my first response was, ‘Why couldn’t it have gone to the whole organization?'”

Most of all, Sher wants to acknowledge the women who turn to PetSafe Ottawa.

“I want to turn this back on the women who trust us with their pets. They’ve taken a big step. It is the most rational but terrifying decision they will have made in their entire lives, and they deserve to be honoured.”

Women in the Ottawa area who need SafePet’s help can reach out through its website or Facebook page.

Here are some additional resources for those in need:

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Canadian Mental Health Association
Child Welfare League of Canada
Public Health Agency of Canada, Family Violence Prevention Team, Centre for Health Promotion & Family Violence Initiative
Neighbours Friends & Families

Please note: If you are in immediate danger, call 911 directly.

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