New Jersey bill seeks to expand domestic-violence restraining orders to protect animals

Laura Poples Seer Farms offers temporary shelter to pets of families in crisis. A bill that would expand domestic-violence restraining orders to protect animals could go before the state Senate this year.
Laura Poples Seer Farms offers temporary shelter to pets of families in crisis. A bill that would expand domestic-violence restraining orders to protect animals could go before the state Senate this year. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 12, 2011

Victims of domestic violence in New Jersey may soon have one less reason to stay with their abusive partners.

A bill that would expand domestic-violence restraining orders to protect animals emerged from the Senate Judiciary Committee last month and may be voted on by the end of the year, according to Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D., Cape May).

The bill is also awaiting a vote in the Assembly.

"When partners are having really severe problems with each other, the pet is used as a pawn in that process," said Van Drew, who sponsored the measure with Sen. Thomas H. Kean Jr. (R., Union).

Van Drew recalled stories he had been told of domestic violence affecting four-legged family members.

"It's been literally where there's been a restraining order, and a husband or boyfriend is not supposed to be close to his spouse or girlfriend, and . . . they still will try to keep the dog to try to draw the spouse back into it," Van Drew said.

Passing a bill that would bar abusers from gaining access to their victims' pets, Van Drew said, is "common sense."

Laura Pople agrees. Pople is the executive director and founder of Seer Farms, a "people-centered animal sanctuary" that provides temporary shelter to pets of families in crisis. New Jersey's SPCA says it is unaware of any similar facility in the state.

Pople was recently harboring the dogs and cats of four victims of domestic violence.

That's not unusual, she said. Since Seer Farms bought its Jackson, Ocean County, facility in 2009, she says, she has served at least four families affected by domestic violence at a time.

In one case, a woman escaped to a shelter with her 2-year-old son and cat, only to be told that the shelter did not accept animals.

"She called me in tears from the shelter parking lot," Pople said. "We don't get a lot of exploratory calls. We usually get calls from people who need to get their pets out now."

Were Van Drew's proposed law in effect, Pople said, women might not feel so helpless when pulling themselves - and their pets - out of violent situations.

Pople and her colleague Anne Ciemnecki, president of Seer Farms, have supported the measure since it was introduced. Ciemnecki joined in lobbying for the bill in March, using a statement Pople helped her prepare.

The bill "is essential. We need a coordinated response in supporting people who are victims of domestic violence," Pople said. "Because animals are right in the midst of it, you need to protect them as well."

Animals can be caught in the middle of violent brawls. They are used as pawns - threatened as a way to control their abused owners - or they can be targets of abuse themselves.

Pople recalled the dog that drove this message home for her.

"One of our early dogs that came in was beat up so bad, we had to rush him to the vet," Pople said. "Six hundred dollars' worth of vet bills. The guy had a spiked collar embed itself into [the dog's] neck."

A Utah State University study published in 1998 found that abusers had threatened or attacked pets belonging to 70 to 75 percent of women who reported domestic violence.

Maine was the first state to pass legislation barring abusers access to their victims' pets. Nineteen U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico followed suit, according to a report published in 2011 by Michigan State University. New Jersey's bill is modeled after the Maine law.

Pennsylvania has no legislation similar to Maine's, but state laws recognize the link between domestic and animal abuse. One mandates that abusers found guilty of threatening to kill a pet must relinquish all firearms to police.

Legislation such as Van Drew's is a small step in the right direction, according to a woman who recently visited her cat at Seer Farms.

The woman, who did not wish to be identified because she feared for her safety, said she had fled her abusive spouse of two decades last month.

Her alcoholic husband harassed and battered her for years, she said. She wanted to leave, the woman said, but if she did, her husband told her, he would kill her cats.

"The cops wanted me to leave," she said. "I didn't leave because of the animals. There was no place for the animals."

If she had been able to obtain a restraining order to ensure the animals' safety, she said, she would have left her husband almost a decade ago.

"He knew they were my Achilles' heel," she said. "I was angry, but I bit my tongue because I had my babies."


Contact staff writer Emily Brill at 856-779-3882 or ebrill@philly.com.

 

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|