While Gov. Walker is to be commended for his commitment to keeping our families safe from dangerous abusers, what is noticeably absent is a commitment to keeping our families’ pets safe from those same abusers.
One potential safeguard would be to enact a law that would allow courts to include family pets in domestic violence protection orders. According to the Humane Society of the United States 2012 Humane State Ranking report, 25 states have such a law in place, including Minnesota and Illinois.
Madison attorney Megan Senatori supports such an idea. She is the president of SAAV (Sheltering Animals of Abuse Victims), a 501(c)(3) all-volunteer nonprofit organization dedicated to raising community awareness regarding the prevalence of animal abuse in families affected by domestic violence. Through a collaboration with Domestic Abuse Intervention Services and the Dane County Humane Society, SAAV also provides temporary, confidential shelter for the animals of domestic abuse victims for a period of up to 90 days, primarily through a network of foster homes.
Megan co-founded SAAV with law school friend and colleague, Pamela D. Hart, in 2001. A shareholder at the Madison law firm of DeWitt Ross & Stevens S.C., Megan is also an Adjunct Faculty Member at the University of Wisconsin Law School and Marquette University Law School where she teaches a course in Animal Law.
In a recent interview, Megan shared her views on why Wisconsin needs to bring pets into the discussion of domestic violence prevention and legislation.
1. What are your thoughts about the creation of a state law that would provide for protective orders for domestic abuse victims with pets? And are there statistics or studies to support the idea?
State laws that provide for “pet protective orders” are critical to protecting domestic abuse victims and their animals. The exact form of these types laws vary, with some states simply allowing a domestic abuse victim to use animal abuse as a basis to obtain a restraining order for herself, while other states enable the court to also directly protect the animal from abuse by including the animal in the protective order. Regardless of the form, these types of laws are extremely important to protect domestic abuse victims with animals in their family.
A 1995 study of women’s shelters in Wisconsin showed that 86% of the women had pets, and 80% of those women reported that the batterer had also been violent to their pet. Animal abuse is a tremendously effective (and traumatic) way for a batterer to exercise power and control over his victim. Three separate studies have documented that from 18% to 40% of women seeking shelter at a crisis center reported that concern for the welfare of their animals prevented them from seeking shelter sooner, in some cases for more than two months.
Harming a beloved animal is a very real symbol of what the batterer can do to the victim. Victims understand that. We commonly hear from victims who did not leave their batterer, or who delayed leaving their batterer, because they did not have a safe place for their animal if they sought safety for themselves. When a batterer targets a family pet or other animal, there is no question it should be a basis for the victim to obtain a domestic abuse restraining order. Current Wisconsin law relating to domestic abuse restraining orders does not mention animal abuse. This is a very real problem that requires a legislative solution.
2. What are the benefits to having this law?
Batterers know that they can torment and control their victims by abusing, or threatening to abuse, an animal that the victim dearly loves. Pet protective orders allow the domestic abuse victim to obtain a restraining order in that situation and, therefore, remove a "tool" from the arsenal of ways that batterers try to control their victims.
3. What can animal supporters do to help see this law created, sponsored, and enacted?
Education and community outreach is the key to passing legislation to protect domestic abuse victims with animals. Many people simply do not realize that animal abuse is prevalent in families affected by domestic abuse. To achieve changes in the law, however, it is important that animal supporters move beyond preaching to the choir. We must look for commonality with folks who are simply not necessarily “animal lovers” or interested in laws to protect animals, because wide-spread support is critical to achieving legislative victory.
4. You teach a course in Animal Law at University of Wisconsin Law School and Marquette University Law School. Are there any other animal cruelty laws that
you feel need to be created, revisited or amended in Wisconsin?
If I had my “wish list” there are many changes that I would make to Chapter 951, Wisconsin’s Animal Cruelty and Neglect laws. While Wisconsin is ahead of many states, its animal protection laws are not nearly as comprehensive as some of our neighbors, such as Illinois. Illinois routinely ranks at the top of the list for animal protection laws because Illinois law addresses not only punishment for violations, but also progressively attempts to identify root causes. For example, Illinois includes provisions that enable a court to require counseling in animal abuse cases. Illinois law also contains a penalty enhancer when animal abuse occurs in front of a child. And, of course, Illinois allows animals to be included in domestic abuse protective orders. Research confirms that there is a relationship between animal abuse and crimes against humans. Therefore, a comprehensive scheme of animal protection laws is critical not only to protecting animals, but also to protecting our fellow human beings
For more information on the link between animal abuse and domestic check out these resources:
Denice Ryan Martin, a volunteer with Wisconsin Voters for Companion Animals, is a freelance writer, licensed social worker and animal welfare advocate. She’d like to hear your thoughts on this topic. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org