Saving people, saving pets

MARQUETTE – It could be easy to tell a person in an abusive domestic situation to just leave.

Tell that to someone caught in Hurricane Katrina who was faced with the agonizing choice of being rescued or leaving behind their pets, with whom they might not be reunited.

Project Sasawin, run by the Women’s Center, aims to help people escaping domestic and sexual violence by providing refuge for their pets during that difficult time. The center also runs the Harbor House shelter for survivors.

Helen Kahn, professor of the School of Clinical Sciences at Northern Michigan University, is involved with the Project Sasawin, named for the Anishinaabe word for “nest” or “safe place.”

Also involved are Beth Casady, executive director of the Women’s Center, and Ann Brownell, community outreach coordinator with the Upper Peninsula Animal Welfare Shelter.

Kahn said: “We provide foster care for the companion animals of survivors of domestic sexual violence who are leaving those situations, or have left those situations, and are going to live somewhere – could be Harbor House, could be with a friend – and they can’t have animals where they’re going.”

Several factors are in play in this scenario, she noted.

For one thing, either their dogs, cats or other animals have been abused in that domestic violence situation.

“There’s a huge association between domestic violence and animal cruelty, and abuse,” Kahn pointed out, “so what’s one aspect. The survivor doesn’t want to leave her animal behind because she’s leaving her animal behind in the way of cruelty.”

Not wanting to leave the pet behind, the woman stays behind, she said.

“So, the way we look at it is, we save the animals, we save the survivor,” Kahn said.

Casady said she was told that in one instance, the perpetrator killed the dog to get back at the woman.

“That happens a lot,” Casady said, and that includes both genders.

Kahn, who also is a counselor for Great Lakes Recovery Centers, said one woman, who was returning to her residence, immediately mentioned looking forward to going home to her dog.

The pets, though, have to go somewhere in the meantime. To help survivors, foster care is provided for the pets through Project Sasawin.

Casady said the program works with the Women’s Center getting a call from someone wanting assistance, with the facility operating a 24/7 crisis line and an emergency response team.

“You want to get them to a safe, you know, environment,” Casady said, “whether or not that’s to our shelter or to a friend’s house or whatever. We will assist them doing that, and if they have an animal, and they say, ‘I need to get my animal out too’ at the same time, we’ll go out and pick up that animal.”

That task falls on the Women’s Center staff, she said, because that’s part of its advocacy.

Brownell said UPAWS used to receive the animals, but its Negaunee Township facility isn’t set up for long-term holding.

Confidentiality also is an issue.

“You wouldn’t want an abuser or someone knowing the abuser coming to get that animal, hold that over that person’s head per se, who’s trying to get out of this situation,” Brownell said, “so getting an animal into a confidential foster home that is set up through the Sasawin Project is very important, because animals are sponges.”

The pets too are traumatized, she said.

“It might not be physically, but mentally they are,” Brownell said.

Those animals, she acknowledged, are bonded with their owners, and it’s her firm belief that the pets being in a safe foster home – an actual home environment.

Casady said that ideally the incoming pet will be checked by a veterinarian, and then placed into a foster home. That home’s location is kept confidential too, even to the survivor, for the protection of the pet and the foster family.

Kahn also pointed out the survivor can’t have contact with the foster family. Casady said Women’s Center staff works to ensure the survivors are in a good place and their employment set. Reuniting the survivors with their pets, however, can happen at the center or in another place.

Project Sasawin is run by volunteers, but Kahn noted Women’s Center staff time is used for the program, plus vets need to be paid, and food and supplies must be provided to the volunteers.

If an animal behavior consultant is needed, that person also would need to be paid. The foster families, though, are volunteers.

So, how is the program funded? Donations help, but so do grants, according to Kahn, particularly the American Kennel Club’s Humane Fund and the Banfield Charitable Trust.

“Both of those foundations have specific money earmarked for survivors of domestic violence to keep animals and their families together,” Kahn said.

Casady said people also may donate to Project Sasawin through the Women’s Center, or drop off new or gently used pet supplies at the center, located at 1310 S. Front St. in Marquette. Fosters are needed as well.

Kahn stressed that the longest a foster family can hold an animal is 90 days because that’s the length of time a survivor can be at Harbor House.

“We want these survivors to move on with their lives,” Kahn said.

Getting people to worry about animals probably isn’t a hard sell, but the survivors should be kept in mind as well, she pointed out.

“People, by and large, just really have a special place in their heart for animals, and look at animals in some respects the way – in the situation, and in general – the way they might look at children, which is, they don’t know what’s happening to them,” Kahn said. “They’re defenseless. They don’t how to take care themselves. They’re trusting.

“They’re all those things, and so unfortunately, the public may not have as much sympathy or empathy for the survivor or the adult.”

Again, that goes back to the question: Why don’t they just leave?

“It’s not that easy,” Kahn said.

Project Sasawin has helped one particular survivor, who related this tale anonymously:

“I was in an abusive relationship for years. I stayed initially for my children and then I had no choice but to stay due to limited housing options for my four-legged children. I would no sooner abandon them than I would have my children. Having the Sasawin Project available gave me an opportunity to escape verbal, mental, sexual and physical abuse. It provides a much-needed option for women in my situation as the pets also tend to suffer at the hands of an abuser.

“Without a place for my pets to go, I would have stayed in those deplorable conditions, risking my safety, I have since found housing for myself and my pets but it took months, if not years, until the program became available. I can’t express my level of gratitude for the opportunity.”

For more information or to help with Project Sasawin, email Sasawin@nmu.edu or call 225-1346.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.