Too many women are having to choose between their safety and their pets.
Heather Gamble knew she had to leave home for her own safety when her then-boyfriend became violent. But abandoning her pets — that was an impossible decision.
“By the time I was thinking about leaving, my dog was nearly 2 years old, and at that point, it was a bond like what parents have with children," she says. "Pets can sort of take that place in your heart and life.”
Loved ones tried to convince her to leave her dog and two cats at an animal shelter. But those animals had been by her side as she endured physical and verbal abuse. During one particular argument, Gamble says her abuser kicked her dog Nala. These animals were family and couldn't be left behind.
Luckily, a local women’s shelter had just received a grant that allowed women and their animals to stay there. Gamble and her pets moved in immediately.
But not everyone has access to an animal-friendly shelter the way Gamble did.
In fact, it's estimated that fewer than 5% of domestic violence shelters allow pets.
Many women in situations of domestic violence are unwilling to leave their beloved animals behind. Studies have shown that 48% of domestic violence victims delay leaving abusive relationships in part due to concern for their pets' welfare.
When Jen Rice — a rescue-cat owner and founder of the domestic violence charity My Cat Kyle — learned this, she knew she needed to do something about it.
Rice adopted her cat Kyle in 2010. When she learned he was rescued from an abusive home, she did some digging online about women and their animals in domestic violence situations.
She was shocked that resources weren't available for women and their pets. "As a pet owner, I empathized. While I've personally never been in such a situation, I could relate because Kyle is like my child. I had to do something about it," Rice says.
Kyle and his mustachioed good cause have become somewhat of an internet sensation.
Thanks to Kyle's celebrity, Rice raises money by selling My Cat Kyle swag and accepts donations for organizations like URINYC and Red Rover, which tackle the process of untangling the red tape associated with bringing pets on site at domestic abuse shelters.
The goal is to make more women’s shelters animal-friendly.
This work is important because on top of the emotional attachment they feel toward their pet, women often experience fear and guilt at the thought of leaving an animal with their abuser.
“Many people who are in domestic violence situations report that their abuser has threatened, injured, or killed their pet," Rice explains. "So not only are you separated, but you're putting your pet in danger. It's like condemning your pet to death."
Further, Rice says, when pets are left behind, they're used as a tool of emotional distress to manipulate victims into coming back.
Rice's quest goes beyond simply helping a woman leave an abusive relationship. It extends into the recovery process too.
"The reality is an animal's presence is very therapeutic," says Rice. Allowing a survivor of domestic abuse to keep their pet in shelter reduces the chances of returning to the dangerous situation and also releases the woman from further ties or control that the abuser may have over them.
There are enough barriers in the way of an escape route from an abusive relationship. With the help of donations to places like My Cat Kyle, Rice hopes to remove some of the fear women have in leaving violent situations and to help clear the way for those hurting in silence.