Domestic violence and emergency pet fostering

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domestic violence and emergency pet fostering

An emergency fostering service for pets allows domestic violence victims to escape, and still keep their pets—alive and healthy. By Lynne Testoni

Some of the most powerful social justice campaigns and programs have their origins in a tragic story. This is certainly true of the Safe Pets Safe Families organisation in South Australia.

Founder and CEO Jennifer Howard created the service in 2013, a few years after leaving a violent relationship and finding there was nowhere to house her two beloved dogs. 

“I had two dogs, a staffy and a rottie, who I loved very much,” she explains. “I had to flee to a women’s shelter with my kids and there was no option to take my dogs with me. I tried everyone, including family and friends, to try and find someone to keep them but I just couldn’t work anything out. I had to leave them at the property when I went to the shelter. 

“I was going back every day to feed them, which was putting me at risk from my ex-partner, and I could only do that for so long before the lease ended on that house. My pets ended up in the pound and likely euthanised.”

She says that the probable fate of her dogs has haunted her ever since. 

Once Howard was on her feet again and in a safe place, she reached out to some of the women’s shelters to offer to take pet dogs caught up in these situations.

“I just didn’t want anyone else to experience what I did,” she says. “I created what is known now as the Safe Pets Foster program. That was the first thing that we started. I just spoke to a homeless organisation and said if anyone is experiencing domestic violence, and they have to separate from their pets, I can foster them.

“The next week I got a phone call, and someone needed my service. I roped in friends and family into becoming foster carers and I started a small Facebook group and then it grew into what it is today, which is now pretty massive.”

RSPCA NSW recently reported on an Australian study that revealed about 50 per cent of women in violent relationships said that their partner had either hurt or killed one of their pets. The study also revealed that 33 per cent of these female pet owners, who were now living in crisis accommodation, had delayed leaving their violent relationship because of concerns for their pet’s welfare.

Safe Pets Safe Families became a registered charity in 2016 and allows victims to be reunited with their pets after they get back on their feet. It also ensures animals aren’t left in dangerous situations with a perpetrator who might use them for coercive control, and prevents them from being harmed, or surrendered to over-extended animal shelters.  

The organisation has received some government grants, but mostly relies on volunteers and donations. Its biggest financial supporter is the Pet Stock Foundation, which has been providing funding since 2018.

I had to flee to a women’s shelter with my kids and there was no option to take my dogs with me. I tried everyone, including family and friends, to try and find someone to keep them but I just couldn’t work anything out. I had to leave them at the property when I went to the shelter.

Jennifer Howard, founder, Safe Pets Safe Families

Over the years, the organisation has expanded its services.

“As we went along, I realised that no matter the crisis, pets are important to people, especially their mental health and wellbeing,” says Howard. “So, we expanded into homelessness and mental health and even to people needing to go into drug rehab and things like that. 

“We also have what I call early intervention programs, such as those that support people and reduce the number of surrender and euthanasia rates. We’ve got seven programs now, but the Safe Pets Foster program is our main one.”

Some of the programs involve working with local veterinary clinics.

“Our Paws & Pals is a completely volunteer-run program, which includes volunteer vets and vet nurses,” she says. “We offer free general health checks, vaccinations, microchips and flea and worming, food and other essential items to people either living rough due to homelessness or at risk of homelessness. 

“A lot of the clients that come through those clinics have never seen a vet in their life and they are just so grateful for any support. It’s a bit of a gateway service too. Some of these people are more than happy to get help for their pets, but they haven’t really got help for themselves. After they connect to these clinics, we can connect them to human services as well and get them help.”

The Safe Pets Safe Families statistics are impressive, showing considerable growth. “In 2020, we did 283 vet visits and then in 2023, we did 1058 vet visits. There was a huge jump,” says Howard.

The organisation also helps with the cost of veterinary care through a special fund called the Vet Crisis Fund. They work with partner vet clinics as part of this program. 

“All of our partner clinics are a little bit different in the way they operate,” explains Howard. “Some offer a free consult, some offer up to a 40 per cent discount. The Vet Crisis Fund is a community circular fund where we put people on a payment plan and once one person pays back the vet bill, then the money is there for someone else to use.”

Running Safe Pets Safe Families is exhausting, but ultimately rewarding, says Howard. “I think the reward every day has been to reunite people and pets and just help people. The feeling when you’re dropping a pet home is just so exciting. And the animals don’t forget—they know who their owners are, they love them, and they don’t want to lose them.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, call 24-hour crisis line: 1800RESPECT, (1800 737 732), or visit 1800respect.org.au

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