2012 - 2015
Faced with ongoing anecdotal reports of pets and livestock not just mistreated in domestic violence situations, but also being the reason that victims stay in a dangerous situation, the Alberta SPCA set out to do something about the problem. The nature of this issue is such that it surpasses the capacity and expertise of any single organization; consequently, it has historically failed to addressed adequately and in a sustainable manner.
While there had been research into the links between animal cruelty, domestic violence, child abuse and other inter-personal violence, programs to address the plights of both human and animal victims hard to find. Pet safekeeping programs, where they existed, lacked the rigour and support required to sustain them. Humane Societies, Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCAs) and other animal welfare organizations are generally limited in their mandates to help animals only. Virtually all domestic violence agencies and women’s shelters lack the resources and skills to care for pets of their clients. This left a gap in service wherever there were people in danger who wouldn’t leave their dangerous situations due to their pets. It was also presumed that animal abuse in such situations was going unreported, and that children were unnecessarily endangered. We also had an intuitive and anecdotal awareness that the problems in rural areas were even more substantial than in urban municipalities.
Recognizing the potential service gap and the seriousness of the situations – often literally life and death – we set out to address this through a series of measures increasing in scope. The first step was to raise awareness; this was achieved through approximately ten years of both targeted and general print, electronic and in-person communications. We networked with agencies not traditionally associated with animal welfare organizations, including organizations involved in public legal education, social services and violence prevention. Results included recognition by these agencies of the importance of animal abuse in their own work. Key outcomes in this period included a chapter in the Domestic Violence Handbook for Police and Crown Prosecutors in Alberta and inclusion in the Alberta Human Services’ Abuse Information. We also influenced academic research into topics such as Animal Cruelty by Children Exposed to Domestic Violence.
Once awareness had become widespread, we set out to take the next steps. Before doing that, however, we realized that we needed current local data to support any active programs. In 2010 we commissioned researchers at the University of Calgary to conduct a robust study into the problems faced by animal-owning victims of domestic violence. We engaged with five women’s shelters representative of Alberta – located in Grande Prairie, Whitecourt, Sherwood Park, Camrose and Lethbridge.
The study, Inside the Cruelty Connection: the Role of Animals in Decision-Making by Domestic Violence Victims in Rural Alberta, received ethics approval from the University of Calgary and was released in November 2012 to coincide with Domestic Violence Prevention month in Alberta.
From its inception, the study was meant to be a springboard for action. Immediately upon its release, we formed an advisory group which we called the Alberta Alliance for the Safety of Animals and People (AASAP). The group in 2012 initially comprised representatives from 16 organizations – half from human services agencies, and half from animal-related societies. These included women’s shelters, RCMP, public legal education, anti-violence coalitions and Alberta Human Services. Animal groups included the veterinary association, individual veterinarians and humane societies. All members had been identified during the awareness-raising stage as individuals with an interest and the ability to build solutions. (Incidentally, most of the original members are still on the committee, though some new agencies such as Edmonton Police and Animal Care & Control have since joined).
The committee initially met monthly and starting from a blank slate, discussed the problems revealed by the study and possible ways to address it. One of the first tasks of the group was to establish our mandate and parameters. The possibility of forming a new organization was discussed, and ultimately it was decided that AASAP would be an advisory committee to provide expertise to help guide programs run by the Alberta SPCA. Together we worked a logo to identify the AASAP group, which proved to be a great team-building exercise.
By December 2013 we had determined that our first program should be a pet safekeeping program where we would provide care for pets of domestic violence victims who otherwise wouldn’t leave their abusive situation – thus address the 59% of pet-owning victims as reported in our study. With a focus on rural areas, our goal was set at providing this service throughout Alberta. At the time, there were local programs operating in Calgary and Red Deer (the latter has since been challenged due to staffing changes), so we agreed that we would start in the Edmonton area and grow outward.
We hired a part-time coordinator, a unique position that required expertise both in women’s shelters and animal welfare. We were fortunate to find someone with experience in both areas. She started creating protocols, procedures and Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) with the three Edmonton-area women’s shelters and a veterinary clinic, which had offered to perform complimentary exams and pet boarding. We also engaged the local animal shelter who offered to provide foster homes. We established the criteria for acceptance into the program: victims of domestic violence (female or male) who needed a place for their pet and otherwise wouldn’t leave their violent situation. On July 18, 2014 we accepted our first client and pet.
To get the program established we held training sessions for staff of the women’s shelters and veterinary clinic, and for the volunteer foster parents. Initially we revised our procedures and protocols based on our direct experience; we now have a solid program with well-tested policies which provide a good balance of structure and flexibility. To further awareness of the program and help it grow, we conducted a public awareness program in November 2015, with interviews on television, radio and in print.
Throughout the growth and development of this program, we’ve leveraged grant opportunities, monetary and in-kind donations, and goodwill of companies and other agencies.
What makes this program unique is the cooperation between a vast array of organizations and private businesses (i.e., veterinary clinics). While charitable organizations engaged in similar work often find themselves competing for donor dollars, this program has brought agencies together without hesitation. Furthermore, veterinary clinics have donated goods and services, as have pet stores and a pet medication supplier. For safety reasons, our veterinary partners – even those who contribute all services completely free of charge – can’t receive public acknowledgement (or tax credit, since services don’t apply), but they have remained constant in their willing to assist. This program is maintained by goodwill on behalf of all the parties. We believe this partnership structure is unique, and is what ensures its effectiveness, growth and sustainability.
AASAP has been recognized through two major awards. In October 2015 AASAP was acknowledged by the pet industry, receiving the Summit Award for Collaboration. In November 2016 AASAP received the prestigious Inspiration Award for Leadership in Family Violence Prevention, presented by the Alberta Ministry of Human Services. Both awards were accepted on behalf of all partner organizations and demonstrate the strength of the partnership.
2016 - 2018
The Pet Safekeeping Program has continued to evolve in order to meet the diverse needs of the population served.
In addition to providing short-term housing for pets belonging to individuals who are leaving a situation of family violence, the services provided by the program include:
- Safety planning for individuals staying in or returning to a violent relationship, companion animals included.
- Crisis intervention for individuals victimized by family violence.
- Referrals to supporting agencies and community resources.
- Collaborative case management to reach personal goal outcomes, companion animals included.
- Educational outreach focusing on the Cruelty Connection and the Pet Safekeeping Program.
Professional development and training is important to meet the needs of clients in the program, so staff in the department receive ongoing specialized training on topics such as elder abuse, intimate partner violence in LGBTQ communities, co-occurring mental health and substance abuse issues, and more.
The advisory group, AASAP, disbanded at the end of 2018 as the Alberta SPCA recognized that the scope of care was going to expand and change.
A new department is established.
Realizing that most individuals who own companion animals are unable to focus on their own safety and security until they know that their companion animal will be safe, the Alberta SPCA created the One Family Welfare department.
To meet the diverse needs of the population served, the Alberta SPCA expands the team responsible for assisting pet owners in crisis. A new Pet Safekeeping Coordinator is hired while the previous coordinator transitions to Director of One Family Welfare.
By helping pet owners navigate crisis situations, the Alberta SPCA’s One Family Welfare department will be able to fill the service gap between the intersection of human social services and animal welfare in Alberta. Thus ensuring Alberta SPCA’s mission to protect, promote, and enhance the well-being of animals in Alberta.