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Part 1: Pet Safehouse Program

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If you're a pet owner, you're familiar with the dilemma of what to do with your cat or dog when you go away. But imagine for a moment that you're a victim of domestic violence, needing to leave for good. Studies have shown that many victims won't leave a bad situation if it puts a pet in danger. And that perpetrators will abuse animals to intimidate or silence their human victims. KPBS Radio's Andrea Hsu has this report on efforts in California to address those problems.

Twenty-three-year-old Sarah Speed is a third-year law student at the University of San Diego. This past year, she's managed to keep up with her studies, while working tirelessly on a bill. That bill would make it easier for victims of domestic violence to get their pets covered under restraining orders. The idea - Speed says - is to help victims and their animals leave their abusers at the same time - and without delay.

Speed: For our purposes, when we're trying to get a family out of the home and willing to leave the abuser, and they're not willing to leave fluffy or whomever at the house, two weeks may be too long. A burst of anger can lead to the death of a pet.

Or worse - severe harm to the human victim. Speed explains that the bill would simply add to the restraining order petition a checkbox for pets - next to boxes that already exist for other types of property.

Speed: It says right there, it would say your car, your children named this, that and such, your business address, that's another checkbox, and then there'd be a checkbox to say pets and then you could list underneath that fluffly, tammy, peter pan, whomever that you have and describe them. And then they'd be allowed to be included under temporary restraining order and not really recognized as a special class of property, but as a class of property that has an emotional attachment to the victim and will make it easier for them to leave if it's protected.

Maine, Vermont and New York have already passed similar legislation. Speed will be heading to Sacramento this spring to present the bill to committee.

The connection between domestic violence and pets is one that animal shelters have been looking at for some time. The U.S. Humane Society lists more than 150 programs across the country that provide safe havens for pets. One of the first was the Animal Safehouse Program at the Rancho Coastal Humane Society in Encinitas.

Hartline: Oh you're a very good hider, Bonita.

Christine Hartline runs the Animal Safehouse Program. It takes in roughly 70 pets a year for free, for mostly women who are entering domestic violence shelters. The staff will examine the animals, give them shots, treat any medical conditions, and spay and neuter them. Then the pets are usually sent to foster homes, where they can live for several months. The ultimate goal is to reunite the pets with their owners.

That's important, Hartline says, since a pet is sometimes the only stable thing left in a victim's life. She's seen many cases of victims who seemed to care more about their animals than they did themselves.

Hartline: And it wasn't until the person threatened the animals that they said that was enough. And I think that's really telling about the issues of self esteem -- that these women have, and what they've been subjected to for so long -- that they've gotten to a point where they really care very little about themselves. But their animal may be what prompts them to get help.

And that's when the Animal Safehouse Program becomes important. Hartline says it allows victims to focus their effort on getting their lives back on track.

Hartline: A lot of these victims, they have to go get restraining orders - they have to go to court - lots of things getting jobs, getting squared away with their children with vaccinations - all kinds of stuff - so we want to make sure they know, hey, we have your animal safe, don't worry}

Hartline's reward comes when victims are reunited with their pets. The animals wiggle around, and jump up and down, and the owners cry with joy. But there are moments of heartbreak too - when victims realize it's in the best interest of their pets to give them up. In those cases - Hartline says - the shelter will work hard to find them new homes.

For KPBS, I'm Andrea Hsu.

Tomorrow, we'll hear from a domestic violence victim who says the Animal Safehouse Program got her through the most difficult of times.

(Photo: "Katie" has spent the past three months in a foster home as part of the  Animal Safehouse Program at the Rancho Coastal Humane Society. Andrea Hsu/KPBS )

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