My cousin's best friend has an abusive boyfriend. One time he locked her out and sold her pets on Craig's List. And that's exceedingly tame, considering what some batterers do, as part of their pattern of abuse, to their partners' furry or feathered loved ones. But now, as AP/CNN reports, Maine has become the first state to include pets in domestic violence protection orders. Abusers who harm or threaten their victim's pets in violation of such an order will now be subject to fines or jail time. (Warning to animal people: Skip the link; some details will give you nightmares. Content yourselves with this summary.)
This law is not just warm and fuzzy. It could actually help victims of domestic violence leave their abusers -- and save some animals in the process. How's that? Because it's not uncommon for abusers to threaten pets (or worse) as a means of keeping their partners from leaving, or simply to harm an animal as a means of venting rage. One study cited by the AP found that 71 percent of pet-owning women in a Utah shelter said their abusers had either threatened, harmed or killed their animals.
"It's just another tactic to keep power and control over the victim," said Cindy Peoples of Caring Unlimited, a shelter in Maine's York County.
One of the times my cousin's friend left her boyfriend, she took her parakeet with her. But not all pets are portable. "It's kind of hard to pack up a whole barn full of animals," one survivor of domestic violence told the AP. "And I knew that any animal I left behind would be dead in 24 hours."
Non-animal people may be confounded at this point. Staying together for the kids, sure. But for the cats? In the context of domestic violence, actually, this makes complete sense to me. We already know that people stay with abusers for all sorts of weird and complex reasons, as well as one simple one: If I go, he'll kill me. We also know that abusive relationships are profoundly isolating and identity robbing. If it's gotten to the point where the one relationship you can count on is the one you have with your sheepdog, then "If I go, he'll kill my sheepdog" may seem to be a highly compelling reason to stay put.
How did this law come to be? Last June, the Maine State Bar Association held a seminar on the connection between animal abuse and domestic violence. (I'm totally moving to Maine. Who's with me?) It was during an informal discussion afterward that a judge raised the possibility of expanding the scope of protection orders to protect pets. The subsequent legislative support was "overwhelming," reports the AP.
Maine is not entirely alone in its awareness of the human/animal abuse connection. The AP story noted that laws in six other states "encourage cross-reporting among agencies involved in law enforcement, domestic violence, child protection and animal control" and that more and more women's shelters are forming cooperative agreements with animal shelters. Of course, people violate protection orders all the time; whether Maine's law will have, er, sharper teeth than others remains to be seen. Nevertheless, I'm heartened to read that more and more people in power are thinking conscientiously and compassionately about how to protect all creatures, great and small.