One Family Welfare is a concept formed by the Alberta Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Alberta SPCA), based on the belief that relationships between humans and animals are deeply interconnected.
What is One Family Welfare and why does it matter?
A personal account of the intersections between human welfare and animal welfare.
When people are in crisis, so are their pets. Having spent the last ten years working (and volunteering) with vulnerable populations it became readily apparent that when people were suffering, often so were their companion animals.
Shortly after graduating from university, I worked with children that were under Permanent Guardianship Orders (PGO). Many of the children that I personally worked with became PGO status because their parent(s) did not have the capacity to care for them due to substance abuse issues. I quickly realized that not only did these children suffer through neglect but so did their family pets. In many of the files, there were notes about unsafe living conditions that affected the children, but also their companion animals. Children did not have access to food and neither did the animals in the home. Children had physical signs of neglect and so did the animals in the home. Children were physically abused and so were the animals in the home. After just one month, the intersection between human welfare and animal welfare was glaringly obvious to me.
In tandem with my professional role, I also volunteered my time at a small non-profit that focused on community outreach in rural and First Nation communities. A small group of volunteers would provide food, veterinary care, and support to owned (and stray) animals in various target communities. Many of the communities were so isolated that the residents did not have access to education, reliable employment, medical care, or even transportation. The majority of the companion animals we supported in this volunteer role had never accessed veterinary care and did not have a vaccination history. In addition, many of the animals were underweight, infested with parasites, and had general signs of neglect. It would be easy to judge pet owners in these communities as cruel and irresponsible but often that was not the case. In many situations, the pet owners in these communities felt an attachment to their companion animals – however, appropriate knowledge about veterinary care, combined with financial barriers, made it hard for residents to provide adequate care.
Many of these communities were in a crisis – homes lacked running water and heat, nutritious food was frequently scarce, access to employment was difficult, children were unable to attend school because their families had no transportation to get them there, and an epidemic of gun and gang violence affected safety of residents. Intergenerational poverty added another layer of complexity and many community residents were in constant crisis simply trying to source the basics to get by. My volunteer experience further supported what I already knew – when humans are in crisis so are their animals.
I eventually transitioned from work with children to work with women.
One of my first clients was a woman that suffered from complex post-traumatic stress disorder. For 25 years she was married to a man that would bring animals into the family home for the sole purpose of killing them. Her abuser would force her to witness the drowning of her companion animals when she broke the rules he set in place. Even though the rules were arbitrary and consistently changing, she blamed herself for each animal’s death. Many studies from the last twenty years have illustrated that animal abuse is a form of power and control used to intimidate and manipulate victims of family violence. By drowning her companion animals, he made it clear that if she ever left he would kill her too. She confided to me on more than one occasion that the burns, fractured bones, poverty, and sexual abuse she suffered through while in the relationship was something she had worked through in therapy. She could not however work through the memories of her animal’s abuse and inevitable death. She also confided that the pets were the reason she stayed in the relationship so long because she did not want to leave them behind with her husband.
Her story is not unique; a 2012 report by the Alberta SPCA found that 59% of domestic violence survivors reported they had delayed fleeing their abusive situation due to concern for their pets. In that same report, one in three victims reported their abuser either threatened or harmed their animals. In cases that involved children, 85% of victims reported their children witnessed the threats or harm to the animals.
Over the years, I have supported hundreds of individuals (both men and women) with companion animals that faced crises in the form of family violence, poverty, addictions, health issues, intergenerational trauma, homelessness, and more. My experiences have taught me that animal welfare is directly linked to human welfare. Extending compassion to both humans and animals is integral in ensuring that all members of the family stay together and stay safe in times of life crisis.
When people are at risk, animals are at risk.
When animals are at risk, people are at risk.
Individuals who own companion animals are unable to focus on their own safety and security until they know their companion animal(s) are safe and secure as well. It is for this reason that the One Family Welfare department is so critical. The One Family Welfare department bridges the gap between animal services and human services to maximize the effectiveness of family violence prevention.
Director of One Family Welfare