Law protects pets of abuse victims
Saturday, April 01, 2006 - Bangor Daily News << Back
AUGUSTA - Gov. John Baldacci signed LD 1881 into law Friday, the first law in the country that gives judges the authority to protect pets when domestic abuse victims seek a protection order.
Baldacci called it "unconscionable" that 76 percent of victims who seek safety at domestic violence shelters report that their abusers either harmed or threatened their pets as a tool to control and intimidate them. The new law can help break that cycle of violence, he noted.
"Maine is once again leading the nation by putting its people first," the governor said.
The landmark law not only gives judges the power to include pets on a protection from abuse order but also gives them authority to impose penalties if the order is violated. Those penalties range from a fine to jail time.
Anne Jordan of the Animal Welfare Advisory Council said the law was one result of a 2005 seminar presented to the Maine State Bar Association on the link nationwide between domestic violence and animal abuse.
Jordan, citing a national study by The Latham Foundation, said that Wisconsin battered victims reported that 87 percent of animal abuse occurred in their presence. In Massachusetts, 70 percent of animal abusers had previous records for crimes of violence, and in New Jersey, animal abuse was found in 88 percent of families that were under investigation for child abuse.
Every 15 seconds in this country, a person is a victim of domestic violence, and often that cycle includes violence or the threat of it to the victims' pets.
Police officers frequently watch for animal abuse when called to domestic situations, just as animal welfare agents look for domestic abuse, Michael P. Cantara, Maine's commissioner of public safety, said Friday.
"Violence is violence," he said. "Where there is animal cruelty in the home, chances are someone else is being hurt, too."
Cantara recalled that a woman in Saco who had been abused for years reported to police that her backyard was filled with dozens of dead animals hurt and killed by her abuser.
"We dug that yard up and, to our horror, found a virtual pet cemetery," he said. "Her abuser kept telling her that what had happened to those animals was going to happen to her. This is not a unique case."
Jordan said that a coalition of animal welfare agencies, the Maine Department of Agriculture, mental health workers and domestic violence workers formed a coalition last year to bring the law forward. Testimony earlier this year at a public hearing before the state's Agriculture Committee was particularly powerful.
One woman, who had fled to a shelter, testified in January that she was sent a photograph of her pet dog with its ear severed by her abuser, an attempt to force her to return home. Susan Walsh of Hancock County testified that it was her need to protect her animals that kept her locked in an abusive relationship.
"I knew that any animal that I left behind would be dead in 24 hours," she said at the January hearing. If she doubted that might happen, the day that her batterer deliberately ran down her aged, blind and deaf border collie with his vehicle in the driveway of their home was enough to convince her.
National statistics provided by Jordan indicate that one in four abused people will not seek help because they fear for their pets' safety.
Animal shelters already are responding to the need.
"We're dealing with six animals right now," Katy Dolloff of the West Kennebec Animal Welfare Society said Friday before the signing ceremony. The animals belong to victims who fled to shelters and were unable to bring their pets with them.
The program, dubbed PAWS - Pets And Women to Safety - has provided temporary shelter for rabbits, birds, hamsters, even a cow, Dolloff said.
"We had more than 20 situations last year," she said. "As more and more people learn of this option, we are sure that will increase."
Gretchen Ziemer of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence said Friday that many people aren't aware of the link between pet abuse and domestic violence. "This is such a large barrier to people seeking safety," she said. "A perpetrator will use anything that the victim cares about or loves for control." She said that the nine domestic violence projects in the state often report animal abuse incidents, many of which were observed by children in the home. "They see and experience the abuse as well," Ziemer said.
Rep. John Piotti, D-Unity, the bill's sponsor, said the passage of the law was indicative of "great strides made by the state's Animal Welfare Program, which used to be a black mark on this state.
"It is night and day what is happening there now, and this law is just one example of the many positive things happening," he said.