Downeast Dog News

Pets and Women to Safety

By Susan Spisak | May 01, 2017

For a woman who is living with an abusive partner, making the decision to flee her home may be a scary proposition, especially if she’s fearful that her beloved pet may be harmed if she leaves him behind. More often than not, the abuse victim stays in that dire situation to protect her pet.

Abigail Smith, Executive Director of the 501(c)(3) non-profit, Animal Welfare Society (AWS), substantiates that an abuser may choose to target the victim’s pet as further vengeance, “The link between human violence and animal violence has been well-documented since the 70’s.”

In response to this problem, Caring Unlimited, York County’s domestic violence program, and the Animal Welfare Society (AWS), partnered to initiate the Pets and Women to Safety program, or PAWS.

For fifteen years, PAWS has been helping female abuse victims and their pets find temporary sanctuary in separate, but secured, confidential locations. The PAWS program gets them both out of harm’s way, and while she is finding her new path, she can be confident that her pet is also well-cared for and protected until they can be reunited.

The Caring Unlimited Side

When I spoke to Emily Gormley, the Public Awareness Coordinator for the non-profit 501(c)(3) Caring Unlimited, she said that they serve roughly 2,500 individuals in York County each year—this number speaks to the crisis. So Caring Unlimited’s mission, as it has been since its inception in 1977, is to end domestic violence.

To that end, they’re respectful, supportive, and provide not only safety planning but a haven to anyone facing domestic abuse, not only women and children, but the elderly and men as well. The Caring Unlimited advocates work with them on their needs and goals, be it new housing, legal issues or a career, guiding them in any way, so they can find safety long-term and have a fresh start.

Their programs include a 24 hour hotline (Emily said this is often the victim’s first line of contact with them), outreach programs and support groups, legal assistance, children’s services, transitional housing, and emergency shelter services, with the subset program of PAWS.

The female abuse victims who enter the PAWS program may have traditional companion animals such as dogs and cats, but Emily reminded me that parts of York County are rural, so there may be the need to find a shelter for a horse, goat, or other farm animals.

Together they explore options for the pet. Are there family, friends, or other “organic support” that can take in the pet temporarily? If not, a Caring Unlimited advocate connects them with AWS in Kennebunk.

Animal Welfare Society’s Role

Smith reiterated that all their PAWS clients come through Caring Unlimited. She said in the last two years, they’ve guaranteed 26 pets with a safe haven in an undisclosed location, and they’re well-cared for, both medically and emotionally. This is an important factor for the abuse victim while she’s staying at a Caring Unlimited shelter—she can concentrate on her goals without worrying about a pet left behind in the home.

Unfortunately, the reality is that only about 65% of the victims are able to take their pet back once they’re settled. The other 35% simply cannot take them back, whether it’s due to issues such as a relocation or housing conflict, but the ladies who’ve had to relinquish their pets have acted selflessly to ensure their safety and future happiness. Smith adds, “Every single one of [those relinquished pets] have been adopted.”

She’s glad that AWS has a hand in PAWS and that they’re fortunate to have community support for all their programs, including this important one.

“AWS is not just the pound. We have all these programs…and this one for me is a mission, a critical way that we help the community that we serve.”

The Staggering Statistics

According to the Humane Society of the United States, “animal abuse is one of four predictors of domestic partner violence according to a six-year ‘gold standard’ study conducted in 11 metropolitan cities.”

It gets worse. A report indicated that between 71% and 83% of women entering domestic violence shelters said their partners abused or killed the family pet. Another study found that in families under supervision for physical abuse of their children, pet abuse was concurrent in a whopping 88% of the families.

Animal mistreatment can be the first warning sign of an individual or family in trouble, reports the National Link Coalition website. The animal abuse, either actual or threatened, is another way for the abuser to silence his or her victim and prevent the victim from leaving the relationship.

It adds this frightening statement, “Abusers kill, hurt or threaten animals to exert power over the human victims and to show them what could happen to them.”

What Can You Do?

At the grass roots level, you can volunteer at Caring Unlimited. They need people to answer their hotline and assist with other special projects. To learn more about volunteer opportunities, contact

Caring Unlimited welcomes donations. They can be life-saving for a victim-in-need. For example, $50 provides one hour of Legal Assistance for a person needing a Protection from Abuse Order. Visit


Donations to AWS to support this important PAWS program are appreciated. Visit

If you are a domestic abuse victim and need help or know someone who does, call Caring Unlimited at (800) 239-7298. For a listing of state and national Domestic Abuse hotlines, as well as a full listing of national and Maine Domestic Violence Organizations, visit

If you suspect or witness animal abuse, call your local Animal Control Officer. You can also call the Maine Animal Welfare Program at (877) 269-9200.

Domestic violence goes much further than people realize, and unfortunately, pets are often involved. Smith reiterated the importance of speaking up. When you see animal cruelty in a home, don’t turn away—look beyond it to see what else may be going on.

“Lots of times, animal mistreatment and abuse is an indicator of the likelihood that additional violence is taking place in the home...You should report anything you see.”