Q&A: Embracing the Human-Animal Bond

This week, in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we are focusing Unsheltered Voices on URI’s People And Animals Living Safely (PALS) program and highlighting the critical role pets play in helping survivors heal. Ann Michitsch is our PALS program coordinator and it is her passion for animals and respect for the deep human-pet bond that has made the program such a success. Read on for a Q&A with Ann to learn more about PALS.

What motived URI to start the PALS program?

Our President and CEO Nathaniel Fields attended a presentation by animal welfare activist Allie Phillips in Washington D.C. in 2012. She related how nearly 50% of domestic violence survivors will stay in an abusive situation if there is not a safety plan for their pet(s) and that survivors’ safety plan of choice was that the pet(s) could enter a domestic violence shelter with them as part of the family. But the reality was that this was not an option that existed in NYC at the time — there weren’t any DV shelters that allowed pets. As a result, victims were often forced to make the heart-wrenching decision to leave their pets behind in order to protect themselves. After learning this, Mr. Fields was determined to bring a co-sheltering program to URI’s domestic violence shelters. About a year after that conference, the PALS program — People and Animals Living Safely — started as a pilot program in one of our domestic violence shelters. Today we have three shelters that allow pets, soon to be four, that have made it possible for over 100 pets and their owners to stay together safely.

Can you explain how the program works and how pets are cared for once in shelter?

Our PALS families come from many referral sources as well as from finding out about the program through their own research about pet-friendly domestic violence shelters. There is an intake process to make sure all safety considerations are addressed, including selecting a shelter location a safe distance away from the victim’s abuser. And there are pet criteria to ensure we are following city and state health regulations as well as living space needs.

The families care for their pets in their own co-sheltering units and are provided with Purina welcome kits that include many of the items that they may have left behind such as bowls, treats, leashes, and a blanket. Purina also provides food for the pets for however long they remain with us in shelter. The ASPCA provides medical services for the pets which include wellness exams, updated vaccines, spaying and neutering services, and microchips.

Each of our PALS shelters also has a Purina Play Haven on the premises, allowing the pets to spend some time getting exercise and playing with family members outdoors in a safe space.

How can living in a household where domestic violence occurs impact a pet? Can you give some examples of what sort of trauma you have seen in animals and what sort of support PALS was able to offer?

Violence can change a pet just as it does people. Rather than being fun-loving, active, and social, they may become vigilant and protective. They may hide or alternately try to intervene in a violent situation. We had a dog in the PALS program who protected his battered owner by being aggressive towards the abuser, who then choked the dog into unconsciousness. He remained hyper vigilant after arriving at PALS with his family, concerned about anyone entering their unit. An ASPCA behaviorist was able to use training techniques to help him relax, feel more social, and engage with staff.

Why is it so important to not just remove the animal from the household, but to keep pet and owner together? Can you speak to the role pets play in the healing process?

PALS pets provide emotional support to their family members. Both the human family and the pet(s) often need to heal together. For the families, the presence of their pets brings them comfort and purpose. One PALS resident stated that when she was reunited with her cat in a PALS unit and her cat jumped on her lap and purred, she knew everything was going to be okay again.

What sort of responses have you had from participants in the program?

Our PALS families express gratitude for the PALS program for keeping families together and for the recognition that pets are part of the family. They are appreciative of the supplies provided by Purina and that their pets have exams by the ASPCA’s veterinary partners. In domestic violence situations there is often financial abuse present, and this affects pets too. There may not have been money available for their nutritional or medical needs. We had a child cry after we brought in the food her cat liked, because her cat had not had any pet food in quite a while. Seeing her cat get excited when she went to her food bowl made the child feel they had their life back.

What is your hope for the program in the future?

We are always looking at where our PALS program can expand within URI, but we also want to assist any agencies that would like to bring a co-sheltering program into their domestic violence shelters. In that regard, we are working on a toolkit that provides important information and best practices.

Ultimately we would like to see programs like PALS become the norm and that the recognition of the human-animal bond is understood and embraced.

To learn more about URI’s PALS program visit:

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