Articles

Protecting Animals: Domestic Abuse and Animal Abuse Linked

  • Emilie Ridge
  • Animal Legal & Historical Center
  • Publish Date: 2008
  • Place of Publication: Michigan State University College of Law

I. INTRODUCTION

Recently, a Los Angeles man killed his girlfriend’s cat after an argument and then told the woman’s daughter that he was going to kill her mother.  The Associated Press, Man Gets 2 Years in Prison for Killing Cat, N.Y. Times, August 14, 2008.  Another woman in Maine had tried to leave her abuser several times, but every threat to leave was suppressed by her husband “running over her blind and deaf border collie..., shooting two sheep, [or] wringing the neck of her prized turkeys.” Regina Cabral Jones, Chapter 205: Including Pets in Domestic Violence Protective Orders, 39 McGeorge L. Rev. 469 (2008).   In 1999 a woman, who finally left her abuser and was staying at a battered women’s shelter, apologized to an advocate and stated, “I have to go home,” upon receiving pictures of her abuser using gardening shears to chop off the ears of her dog.  Melissa Trollinger, The Link Among Animal Abuse, Child Abuse, and Domestic Violence, 30 Colo. Law. 29, 30 (Sep 2001).

These examples are only a sampling of the horrendous stories that one encounters when exploring the link between domestic abuse and animal abuse. Over the years, domestic violence groups have pieced together the overwhelming evidence connecting abusers of women and children to the abuse of their household pets and even farm animals.  Several states recognized the need for serious measures beyond charges of animal cruelty and have passed or initiated legislation to include pets and animals in protective orders. 

 

II. RECOGNIZING A CONNECTION

The link between animal cruelty and violence has been well documented.  The most famous serial killers have admitted to torturing and killing animals in their youth. Trollinger, supra.  The FBI emphasizes the importance of including information about past animal abuse when profiling potential suspects for violent crimes.  The Animal Abuse-Human Violence Link, http://www.paws.org/help/report/connection.php.  Anthropologist Margaret Mead stated, “One of the most dangerous things that can happen to a child is to kill or torture and animal and get away with it.”  Individuals and children abusing animals should be a warning sign of future violent behavior, a behavior that is often transferred from an animal to another human.  Id. A 1997 study of the largest women’s shelters across 48 states revealed that workers at eighty-five percent of those shelters had heard or been informed of incidents of animal abuse in the home. Murry J. Cohen, M.D. and Caroline Kweller, Domestic Violence and Animal Abuse: The Deadly Connection, http://www.snbw.org/articles/animalabuse.htm           

 

A. Why are Animals Often the Target in a Domestic Abuse Situation?

Pets are part of the family in the majority of American households.  Nearly seventy-five percent of families with school-age children have at least one companion animal. When the family is experiencing violence, these pets often become the target.  Animal Cruelty and Family Violence: Making the Connection, http://www.hsus.org/.   The idea that a pet is “a member of the family,” however, makes animals especially vulnerable to abusers in domestic abuse situations.  A man in Wisconsin stabbed and beheaded his wife’s animals stating that it was necessary to teach her a lesson about the importance of life. Cohen and Kweller, supra. Abusers in a violent domestic relationship attempt to demonstrate control over their victim by threatening, harming, or killing the victim’s pets. Cohen and Kweller, supra.

The abuser suggests and often simply states that his violence is necessary to “teach the victim a lesson” or convey the message that “this could be you next.” Abusing or killing an animal ultimately demonstrates the abusers power over the family and perpetuates the victim’s context of living in fear.  This fear paralyzes the victim’s ability to leave the violent relationship.  The abuser threatens that, if the victim attempts to leave, the animal will be hurt or even killed. 

For many battered women, their companion animals are a source of comfort.  They provide the women with emotional support and affection that is not found elsewhere in the violent relationship. Animal Cruelty and Family Violence: Making the Connection, http://www.hsus.org/.  Recognizing this aspect of support, the abuser will harm or kill the animal to further isolate their victim and increase her dependence on the abuser.  More often than not, victims cannot bear to leave their once source of security.            

 

B. Why Should Animals be Included in Protective Orders

For obvious reasons, harming an animal is an easy outlet for an abuser’s violence.  Animals are a helpless and easy target for an abuser’s aggression.  Pets have a limited voice under the law and rarely have an escape route from the violence that is inflicted upon them. 

Also, as mentioned above, victims of domestic violence are very hesitant to leave a situation that involves their beloved companion animal.  The laws in most states do not protect animals in situations of domestic abuse, although there is a clear link between the victim and their animals.  Therefore, victims do not have the power under the law to protect their pets from their abusers.  They can, of course, simply take the pet when they leave, but most women’s shelters do not allow victims to bring an animal with them for health and safety reasons.  Victims are already hesitant to leave a violent domestic situation and when they are further restricted from taking and protecting their pets, they make the unfortunate and often fatal decision to stay with their abuser.

 

III. CURRENT STATE OF THE LAW

It took society years to recognize the violence against women and, while the animal welfare movement is certainly progressing, the need for laws protecting animals is only now beginning to get serious attention.  Many states continue to recognize animal abuse as a misdemeanor with no severe penalties.  Furthermore, animals have historically and, for the most part, continue to have the status of mere personal property under the law.  Until these laws progress further, victims of domestic violence will continue to have to make unnecessary decisions between their own safety and the safety of their pets.

 

A. History of Animals as Property

The passage of laws and the number of bills pending to include animals in protection order that will provide protection to animals caught in middle of domestic violence situations reflect an ideological change in the ways in which animals are perceived, treated, and valued in our society today.  Social attitudes toward animals in the United States have changed from the view that animals deserve no more than to be a master’s property toward a feeling of a “pet” who is a member of a family. Gary L. Francione, Animals as Property, 2 Animal Law I (1996). The outcome of this change has been a struggle for the state legislatures and courts to determine whether to keep animals’ property status intact or to progress the law and recognize more rights for pets and their owners.  Several states have taken measures to enhance the status of companion animals.

Several states have recognized the need for a change in language from pet “owners” to pet “guardians.”  Language reflects the way many of us think of our companion animals, as family members with our promise to care for them.  In 2001, Rhode Island was the first state to introduce a bill to accomplish this change in language.  Rhode Island H.6119 (2001); codified in RI ST 4-1-1.  The bill sought to replace the term “owner” with the term "guardian." Id. This language would mean define a guardian as a person who possesses, has title to or an interest in, harbors or has control, custody or possession of an animal and who is responsible for an animal's safety and well-beingId.  Codifying the language and concepts of animal guardianship will help our laws reflect society's feelings that companion animals are members of our families and not mere objects to be abused.

Another area of law that has improved the status of animals is allowing pets to be the beneficiary of a trust.  Over thirty states have enacted companion animal trusts that recognize an enforceable trust where a pet is the acknowledged primary beneficiary. Marcella S. Roukas, Determining the Value of Companion Animals in Wrongful Harm or Death Cases: A Survey of U.S. Decisions and an Argument for the Authorization to Recover for Loss of Companionship in Such Cases, 3 J. Animal L. 45 (2007).  In the Columbus Dispatch, newspaper reporter Sarah Ovaska writes, “Fido is getting a new name: ‘trustee’ and ‘beneficiary’."  Sarah Ovaska, Animals get Standing, The Columbus Dispatch, April, 12 2008. The article explains that the legal standing for animals was raised a notch because Ohio, following several other states, changed their Uniform Trust Code to allow an animal to become the beneficiary of a trust. Id.  Before these changes in particular states, and currently in those not recognizing animal beneficiaries, the pet would have to be willed to someone along with a sum of money. Id. (To see which states have adopted pet trust laws, see the Pet Trust Map).

Some states have even broken away from traditional property law notions to provide recovery for non-economic damages when an animal is harmed or killed. David Favre, Overview of Damages for Injury to Animals- Pet Losses, Michigan State University College of Law (2003).  Six states-Hawaii, Florida, Kentucky, Idaho, Louisiana, and Texas- have allowed recovery for mental anguish in animal related cases. Id.

In the legal sense, animals are often still regarded as 'things,' or mere objects that can be bought, sold, or discarded at an owner's discretion.  Only when animals can be regarded as 'persons' in the eyes of the law will it be possible to give real strength to the laws protecting animals from abuse. Though the legal, moral, and ethical debates continue over the status of animals, these several steps offer progress for animal-human relations.

 

B. Including Animals in Protective Orders: Laws and Bills

i. Cruelty Laws Identifying Domestic Violence

Including animals in protective orders recognizes that animal abuse in these situations is a distinct form of animal cruelty. Indiana, a person who knowingly or intentionally kills a vertebrate animal with the intent to threaten, intimidate, coerce, harass, or terrorize a family or household member commits domestic violence animal cruelty. IN ST 35-46-3-12.5.  This section specifically categorizes this type of abuse as a class D felony. Id.  In Oregon, animal abuse may be elevated to a felony offense if the act was committed directly in front of a minor child or if the perpetrator was previously convicted of domestic violence. O.R.S § 167.320(4)(a)(A).  These laws aim to protect the animal itself, as opposed to protecting the “animal of the victim.”

ii. General Overview of Protective Orders Including Animals

Including animals in protective orders is another important step in strengthening their entitlement to protection under the law.  Eight states, including Colorado, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Vermont, Nevada, and Tennessee have passed laws to include animals in protective orders in domestic abuse situations.  The more encouraging statistic is that over 15 other states have started to follow in these admirable footsteps and propose legislation to amend their own statutes. The framework for most of this legislation is already in place and simply requires amending already existing laws.  Phil Arkow & Tracy Coppola, Expanding Protective Orders to Include Companion Animals 5 (2007), http://www.americanhumane.org/site/DocServer/ PetsinPO2007.pdf?docID= 5061.  A Protective Order is one of many options available to victims of domestic violence.  It is a legal order issued by a state court which requires one person to stop harming and to stay away from another person. Id.  It is also sometimes referred to as a restraining order. Id. All protective orders come under the authority of state law and, therefore, each state is different in its requirements and makeup. Id.

These laws establish who can file for an order, what protection or relief a person can get, and how the order is to be enforced. Id.  Generally, all protective order statutes permit the court to order the abuser to stay away from the petitioner, her home or other places, and to cease further contact. Id.  This is referred to as a “no contact” provision. Id. Also, the courts can include a “cease abuse” order, requiring the abuser to stop hurting or threatening the victim. Id. Many jurisdictions allow the courts to make decisions about the care and placement of the children involved.  Id.  When the abuser violates the order, or fails to do something that the court has ordered, the victim can ask the police or court to enforce the order. Id.  If the court then finds that a violation has occurred, it will determine the appropriate penalty. Id.

iii. Why Specifically Protect Animals?

Including animals in protective orders is an important step in providing for their safety in domestic violence situations.  The gap in current laws may come from the fact that both parties, both victim and abuser, maintain co-ownership of the companion animals.  Dianna J. Gentry, Including Companion Animals in Protective Orders: Curtailing The Reach Of Domestic Violence, Yale Journal of Law and Feminism (2001).  When a companion animal is not specifically included in a protective order, there is the potential for animals to remain with the abuser because he can claim co-ownership. Leaving the animal with the abuser adds to the risk of the pet’s injury or death.  Specifically stipulating the inclusion of an animal will keep this claim from arising.

In addition, there is clearly a distinguishable difference between breaking a chair and harming an animal.  Most protective orders allow a victim to remove their “essential personal effects” from the home. Id.  Common personal effects include keys, wallet, toiletries, etc.  Pets are not typically considered a personal effect and are, therefore, now being recognized as a separate category to be protected under the protective order. 

iv. Animals in Protective Orders

The states that have amended their statutes to include animals generally authorize the court to grant the exclusive care, custody, or control of an animal to the petitioner, and order the respondent to stay away from the animal.  Maine was the first state to enact such a law and their statute provides that the court is to issue orders of protection to safeguard the well-being of animals of either party or minor children. Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. 19-A, §4007(1) and § 4011(2) (2008).  Violation of this order in Maine is treated as contempt. Id.

In California, on a showing of good cause, the court may include in a protective order a grant to the petitioner of the exclusive care, possession, or control of any animal owned, possessed, leased, kept, or held by either the petitioner, or a minor child residing in the residence. Cal. Fam. Code §§ 6300-6389; see also Cal. Penal Code § 136.2(a)(1).  The court may order the respondent to stay away from the animal and forbid the respondent from taking, transferring, encumbering, concealing, molesting, attaching, striking, threatening, harming, or otherwise disposing of the animal. Id. Please see the Sample Criminal Protective Order for domestic violence from California.

v. Including Animals in Domestic Violence Definitions

Several states have not only included animals in protective orders, but have amended their definitions of domestic violence to include harm to animals.  In Colorado, the legislature changed their definition of domestic violence to include, “...any other crime against a person, or against property, including an animal, or any municipal ordinance violation against a person, or against property, including an animal, when used as a method of coercion, control, punishment, intimidation, or revenge directed against a person.”  Colo. Rev. Stat. §18-6-800.3 (2008).  This domestic violence definition is a very good example of legislatures recognizing and connecting domestic violence with animal abuse.   Unfortunately, this statute still makes it clear that animals are part of a person’s property.  The wording of the statute specifically states, “Domestic violence also includes any other crime against a person, or against property, including an animal.” Id.

Similar to Colorado’s definition, Nevada’s domestic violence definition includes “injuring or killing an animal” as a specific act of domestic abuse.  This definition expanded the unlawful acts that formerly constituted domestic violence to include, “knowingly, purposefully or recklessly injuring or killing and animal with the intent to harass the victim.” Nev. Rev. Stat. §33.018 (2008). Unfortunately, the penalty for this specific act is still a misdemeanor. Id. The courts are permitted, however, to issue a temporary or extended order to prevent the party from harming or taking possession of an animal. Id. Tennessee’s definition of domestic abuse also includes physical harm or threatened physical harm to a pet.  Tenn. Code Ann. §36-3-601(1) (2008).

More than fifteen states currently or in the past legislative session have proposed bills to include animals in protective orders.  Most of the bills seek to amend general laws and allow courts to issue protective orders to include the care, custody or control of companion animals.  A pending bill in Pennsylvania seeks to add a provision to the cruelty to animals statute by making it a third-degree felony for a person subject to a protection abuse order to “willfully and maliciously kill, maim, disfigure, torture, or poison any domestic animal or domestic fowl that is in the care, control or supervision of a person who benefits from an abuse order.” H.B. 2208, 191st Gen. Assem. Reg. Sess. (Pa. 2008).  Regardless of the approach legislatures are taking to protect animals in domestic violence situations, it is clear that this is an issue gaining attention in states across the country. 

While these are exciting statistics and improvements in the march toward protecting animals, many of the proposed bills die quickly because legislatures do not take the proposals seriously.  When a domestic violence victim testified before the Maryland Judiciary Committee on a bill to require an abuse suspect to stay away from family pets, some of the panel and lawmakers joked about how ridiculous these orders could become and whether they would “have to protect even chickens and farm animals.”  Lisa Rein, Domestic Violence Bills Languish on Judiciary Panel, The Washington Post, May 11, 2008.

Juxtapose Maryland’s attitude with the Maine legislature who, after hearing the testimony of domestic abuse victim Susan Walsh, quickly passed the bill to include all animals, even farm animals, in protection orders.  Ms. Walsh stated, “It wasn’t just the cats and dogs, it was the sheep and the chickens. I was terrified for their welfare. I knew that if I were to leave, he wouldn’t hesitate to kill them. He had done it before.” Pam Belluck, Battered Wives’ Pets Are the Latest Victims of Domestic Violence, The Herald Tribune, April 3, 2006.

Some state legislatures do not consider animal abuse and its connection with domestic violence as a serious problem. Other States have whole-heartedly made efforts to include animals in protective orders, recognizing the clear link between animal and domestic abuse.   With so many bills pending, the future of this issue is clearly positive. 

 

IV. THE CYCLE AND THE SOLUTION

While there have been many gains in protective order legislation, those laws only address part of the growing problem of protecting animals in domestic violence situations.  Ms. Joan Schaffner explains in her article, Linking Domestic Violence, Child Abuse, and Animal Cruelty, that there is a continuous cycle between all three types of abuse and, unfortunately, the law has not explicitly recognized the link between them.  Joan E. Schaffner, Linking Domestic Violence, Child Abuse, and Animal Cruelty, ABA TIPS Animal Law Committee Newsletter (Winter 2006).  First, Ms. Schaffner explains that it is well documented that where there is domestic violence, there is generally animal abuse as well.  Id.  A study was published in the February, 2000 issue of Violence Against Women examining 111 battered women who sought shelter in South Carolina.  This research found that of those women with companion animals, almost half reported their current or former partners had threatened or abused their animals. Cohen and Kweller, supra.  Secondly, children exposed to family abuse situations or those who have abused animals themselves are at a greater risk of psychological and behavioral problems in the future. Schaffner, supra.  When children are exposed to violence or are the abusers, the cycle is complete because they are more likely to grow up and become the abuser in their own families. Id.

The George Washington Law School Animal Welfare Project currently is working on implementing new laws that address the links and protect both human and animal victims of domestic abuse. Id.  Their project suggests that there should be mandatory, rather than optional, cross-reporting among agencies responsible for investigating and reporting family abuses. Id. When an officer observes a child at the home of a person suspected of animal abuse, they should file a report with Child Protective Services, who will make reasonable attempts to inquire about the care of the child. Id.  Similarly, employees in the child or adult protective services should report any knowledge or observance of an animals that they suspect has been the victim of cruelty at the home of persons suspected of child or adult abuse. Id.

These simple, and seemingly logical, observations and reports will help government agencies build their evidence of the link between animal and family abuse. Id. Further, future abuses can be avoided by the diligent recognition of situations that have the signs and potential for future abuse. Id.

In addition to cross-reporting, local domestic violence shelters and animal protection organizations need to develop safe havens for pets of domestic violence victims. Id.  Health code regulations, lack of space, and safety concerns are the leading concerns keeping battered women’s shelters from accepting women with pets.  Trollinger, supra, at 30.

Many victims delay leaving the abusive situation out of fear for their pets’ safety.  It is estimated that near forty percent of women postpone leaving their abuser because of fear of what will happen to their pet when they leave. Trollinger, supra, at 30.  Battered women have been known to live in their cars with their pets for as long as four months until an opening was available at a pet-friendly safe house. The Humane Society of the United States, Animal Cruelty/Domestic Violence Fact Sheet, http://www.hsus.orgLocal domestic violence shelters and animal protection organizations have begun to partner to develop “safe havens” for the pets of domestic violence victims.  Animal Cruelty and Family Violence: Making the Connection, http://www.hsus.org/.  With the help of over 100 safe haven programs, many domestic violence victims no longer have to choose between their safety and their pets. Id.  States that pass laws to include animals in protective orders greatly assist domestic violence victims in communities where domestic violence shelters are neither equipped to house animals nor have such “safe-haven” efforts. 

 

V. CONCLUSION

The movement to recognize the links between animal abuse and domestic violence has to start with the state legislatures. The states must listen to the testimony of victims and consider the studies that show the clear link between domestic violence and abuse to animals in those situations.  State legislatures must be more diligent in passing the bills that are presented to amend laws to include animals in protective orders. 

Once there is a law in place to protect the animals in domestic violence situations, victim will have the option of leaving the violent situation without hesitation and will experience the reassurance of knowing that her abuser is lawfully restricted from harming the animal.  Also, state law enforcement must take a more diligent approach in recognizing and cross-reporting situations involving animal, child, and domestic abuse.  Finally, organizations and shelters must come together to initiate “safe havens” for animals involved in domestic violence situations. These laws, with the added support of local government agencies and shelters, will provide the necessary level of protection for animals who are also victims of domestic abuse.

Top of Page