OAKLAND COUNTY, Mich. – Leaving an abusive relationship is one of the most difficult, and often dangerous, decisions a person has to make. There are many factors to consider, especially when children are involved.
It turns out pets also play a major part in the decision, but one shelter is taking that worry out of the equation with its newest pet center.
Since animals are recognizable, we're protecting their identities and confidentiality in this story.
When Tracy Thompson left her abusive husband 17 years ago, she brought very few belongings. She took only the essentials, which included her beloved cat, Sable.
"It was a hard decision," Thompson said. "I know I needed to leave. I wanted to leave, but I had my cat, and my cat is like my family member. So because of that, I took my cat with me. That was to me a split-second choice. I didn't want to leave her behind."
Every year, "Haven" in Pontiac provides shelter and counseling to thousands of people who've suffered domestic violence or sexual assault.
"Research shows that 48 percent of survivors will not leave an abusive relationship because they don't want to leave their pets," expert Amna said. "So we started thinking about that, and we reached out to donors, and the Farber family was very gracious to give us the resources to build this pet center."
The newly built Farber Family Pet Center allows survivors to bring pets with them to safety. The center is a free-standing pet shelter just steps away from Haven's main building. Food and supplies are donated by Premier Pet Supply.
People staying at Haven have 24-hour access to their pets and take care of the animals themselves.
"They will come and feed them," Amna said. "They'll come visit with them. They'll walk them. It will be as if they're at home. So it was really important, critical, that they have that opportunity to keep that bonding, that connection, while they're here at Haven."
Animals often suffer abuse or neglect in abusive households, so a safe space such as the Farber Family Pet Center can be a lifesaver for them, too.
"Many times the pets are used as a form of control to keep the survivor in the relationship," expert Marcia said. "Many times the pets are abused. They're kicked. They're sometimes even poisoned as a way to have that survivor stay within that relationship."
"Statistics show that about 71 percent of survivors that come into domestic violence shelters share with us that their pets were either threatened, abused or killed when they left them in the home," Amna said. "I think it's really, really important that they are able to come with their pets, because some of them will end up staying in that relationship just to protect their pets, and especially if they have children. Their children are very connected to the pet, and so kind of taking that child from the home where you've left the pet can really have a lot of psychological trauma and impact for that child who's leaving the home without their pet with them."
The ability to bring a pet when fleeing violent situations means victims have one less thing to worry about.
"If I had left her behind, I think I would have been tortured actually, with knowing that he had the cat," Thompson said. "He was very mean. He was very cruel, and he would've used the cat to torture me and to say he was doing things to her or leave the cat abandoned. All kinds of things. So I didn't want to live with that. I knew that, if anything, I wanted to protect the cat."
The protection goes both ways. Pets provide comfort, emotional support and some normalcy during an extremely stressful transitional time.
"Having a sense of routine, having a sense of home, having a sense of stability, and knowing that, you know, 'When I wake up, I'm going to see my pet. I'm going to see my cat.' Routine is definitely helpful in the healing journey," Marcia said.
Haven limits access to the pet center and can't allow volunteers due to privacy concerns, but there are plenty of ways you can support the Farber Family Pet Center, such as donating and decorating a tile for the walkway.