NORMAN — Imagine wanting to leave your abusive spouse and learning that the people promising you safe shelter from the abuse tell you not all of your family members will be welcome.

That's how some victims have felt when they learned they couldn't bring a beloved family pet with them when they leave a dangerous home life. Last year, 43 women were unable to enter Emergency Shelter with the Women’s Resource Center because they could not bring their family pets.

Beginning Monday, residents will be able to bring dogs and cats to the Emergency Shelter. Thanks to donors, the Women's Resource Center recently installed a kenneling area and can offer sanctuary to two families and their dogs or cats while they are in shelter. 

“We are extremely excited to offer this service for victims of domestic violence,” WRC Executive Director Kristy Stewart said. “Family pets are exactly that — family. If you are escaping a dangerous situation, the last thing you want to do is leave a family member behind.”

There is a link between animal abuse and domestic violence. The National Link Coalition, American Humane Society and the National Coalition against Domestic Violence have gathered data that indicates about 13 percent of intentional animal abuse cases involve domestic violence. Often, investigation of animal abuse is the first point of social services intervention for a family experiencing domestic violence.

“Women were asking to bring in their animals and we were unable to fill that need for them,” WRC Development Director Kyla McMoran said.

The Wilshire Foundation installed new fencing, turf, kennels and housing units for animals. The OKC Pet Food Pantry will be an ongoing donor of food, feeding bowls and leashes as needed.

“This has been a labor of love for staff and would not have been possible without all of the hard work and dedication of Courtney Foster,” Stewart said. “Courtney Foster and Emily Nichols led the charge for this project. We’ve been working with our board of directors and the donors for a while now to bring this idea to fruition.”

According to the National Link Coalition, professionals involved with victims of family violence see animal abuse as a sentinel indicator, “the tip of the iceberg” and often the first sign of other family and community violence. Knowing that there is a link, agencies involved in preventing family violence are seeking to work together for a more effective, species-spanning response.

“It's been about a year in the making,” McMoran said. “We are only taking dogs and cats, but the Women's Resource Center was the prototype for these organizations and they want to replicate this across the state.”

McMoran said there are 30 women's shelters statewide under the attorney general's office. The Women's Resource Shelter will start asking and documenting how concerns about a pet affect whether someone leaves an abusive partner.

The Link reports studies that indicate about 55 percent of domestic violence victims report their pets are important sources of emotional support.

Domestic violence and child abusers may kill, harm or threaten animals to exert dominance and power over victims and to show them what could happen to them, McMoran said, creating a barrier that prevents some people from leaving violent relationships.

The Women's Resource Center will need help to continue the program beyond the one-year commitments by the Wilshire Foundation and the OKC Food Bank to supply needed leashes, collars and pet food for a year, and local donations would free up those organizations' resource to expand the program statewide, McMahon said.

“We would love to have a relationship with some local businesses,” she said.

Food donations are mostly on an “as needed” basis, and businesses could follow the model set up by the food bank where the shelter contacts them for food when it's needed, but any donations would be welcome from individuals and groups.

“The easiest and best way to help us is with cash donations because then we can purchase what we need as needed,” McMoran said. “If they want it to be designated for the kennel area, they can write it in the memo line or online they can make a comment.”

To make in-kind donations, call 364-9424 first.

The Women’s Resource Center provides Emergency Shelter, a Rape Crisis Center, advocacy, court advocacy, safety planning, forensic exams, Domestic Violence Education Group, counseling, prevention education and community education.

The National Link Coalition is a multi-disciplinary, collaborative initiative to increase awareness and address public policy, programs and research. The NLC serves as the National Resource Center on The Link between Animal Abuse and Human Violence.

Resources for help and info

• Domestic Violence Crisis line: 701-5540

• Sexual Violence Crisis line: 701-5660

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My passions include yoga, running, swimming, cycling, hiking, nature photography and a love of animals and the natural environment.