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Making Domestic Violence Shelters a Safe Haven for People and Pets

How can something as simple as a dog park make a difference for survivors of domestic violence?

UPDATE May 2018: We can’t thank you all enough for the amazing outpouring of support for the PALS (People and Animals Living Safely) program. We are proud to share that Urban Resource Institute (URI) and Nestlé Purina have announced the development and construction of PALS Place, a seven-story emergency domestic violence shelter in Brooklyn. PALS Place will be the first-ever domestic violence shelter of its size in the country specifically designed and outfitted for survivor-pet co-living, providing 30 apartments where up to 100 survivors, whether individuals or families, can heal together in safety with their pets. The shelter will open in the fall of 2018. Read more.

May 30th, 2018: National experts from URI, Purina & other organizations gathered to discuss how to design shelters and provide services that protect both families and pets after they escape domestic violence.

The Role Pets Play

Our pets bring us comfort, companionship and a sense of safety. Many recent studies suggest that the bond between an owner and their pet is deeply emotional. Animals even display physical emotional responses depending on their proximity to a recognized human with whom they have an established relationship. Pets are very much a part of the family.

Nestlé used thermal imaging to measure pet emotion

But what happens to pets in situations where human relationships are damaging or even life threatening?

For some victims of domestic violence, pet ownership can become a dangerous bargaining chip. For others, it could be a bind that prevents escape from an abusive living situation. Imagine trying to find shelter for your family, only to find that you have to leave a valuable member of that family unit behind.

Faced with the prospect of having to abandon a much-loved pet, domestic violence victims may be forced to stay in perilous circumstance rather than seek safety elsewhere.

Identifying the Problem

The Urban Resource Institute (URI) is an organization that provides individualized care for victims of domestic violence. In 2012, they became aware that survivors who were pet owners did not have adequate resources or spaces to take refuge.

URI has collected data that includes insights from pet owners suffering domestic violence. That data has offered shocking information about the challenges they face. Of more than 1,200 pet owners who contacted URI’s emergency hotline between June 2013 and May 2015, 30% said their pet had been threatened, 24% had been threatened when trying to protect a pet, and 12% reported being hurt while protecting a pet.

More than a third of URI residents who had owned a pet while in an abusive relationship indicated that their abusive partner had inflicted physical harm on their pets.

One caller to the hotline recounted a moment when her abuser grabbed her cats by the throat and threatened to throw them out the window because “he knows she loves her cats.”

For Nathanial Fields, President and CEO of URI, these studies offered a clear picture of what needed to be done. Fields reports that “we have witnessed first-hand how important it is for survivors to have their beloved pets by their side when they heal.”

You can find more information about data collected by URI in their published white paper, Escaping Domestic Violence as a Pet Owner, from which these statistics are drawn.

Creating a Safe Haven

In response to this problem, URI launched the People and Animals Living Safely program, URIPALS.

URIPALS was launched as a pilot program in 2013. It remains the only program in New York City (and one of the very few in the United States) that provides co-shelter to survivors and their pets. One-third of the shelter apartments at Safe Haven, URI’s Brooklyn based shelter, were designated as pet-friendly. Pet supplies and educational materials were also provided.

Dogs and other pets require safe spaces along with their owners

Opening pet-friendly designated apartments isn’t easy. URI has to take into account resident allergies, asthma sufferers, and those who have a fear of animals, as well as raising awareness of animal care availability. Thanks to careful study though, these challenges are being overcome.

After the success of Safe Haven, the program was also extended to the Urban Women’s Retreat in Harlem.

Purina Providing Support

Since the launch of URIPALS, Purina has provided support for the development of pet-friendly URI shelters.

“For most pet owners, the bond with their pet is incredibly strong, and for people in abusive relationships their pet can be an important source of comfort,” said Dr. Kurt Venator, Purina veterinarian. “Purina is very proud to support the Urban Resource Institute.”

In 2014, Purina sponsored the design and construction of the Purina Play Haven dog park at Safe Haven. In 2015 they opened the Purina Pet Haven at the Urban Women’s Retreat. These were the first-ever dog parks to open at domestic violence shelters in New York City.

Purina worked with architect Gerard P. Paul, who created an enjoyable dog park within the confined space of New York City.

Gerard P. Paul designed play parks in confined NYC spaces

Each of the dog parks provides improved conditions for survivors and their pets, as URI expands its capabilities to provide safe spaces for people and pets to heal together.

“As we open our doors to families with pets and celebrate this critical milestone for URIPALS, we hope to continue the momentum and inspire other organizations in major cities nationwide that this initiative is possible,” Fields commented.

“We know that the new dog park will play an integral part in helping our clients heal, and for that we are extremely grateful to Purina.”

Along with providing vital sponsorship, Purina is also providing much needed food (Purina ONE brand dog food and Purina Cat Chow brand cat food) as well as welcome kits to make the transition to the shelters easier. The kits include pet travel carriers, pet beds, feeding and watering bowls, leashes, scratch posts and toys.

Looking to the Future

To date, URIPALS has helped 53 families with 76 pets including 42 cats, 26 dogs, and a range of smaller animals, escape domestic violence.

Feedback from residents of the URIPALS program has been overwhelmingly positive — 92% of residents reported that they were satisfied by services provided.

Two play parks are already functional and helping domestic violence survivors

Said one resident, “When I found out I could bring my pets with me, I was relieved. If you know you have a safe place to go, you’ll take your pets with you.”

After the success of Safe Haven and the Urban Women’s Retreat, URI intends to expand the program to its remaining four shelters in New York City, providing further resources for people who need a safe place to stay.

Purina will continue to support URI in the years to come.




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Andrew Eccles

Andrew Eccles

Manager of Digital Content @NestleUSA, full time tennis fan, cat dad. Ask me about my favorite on-screen sweaters.

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