NEW YORK — Domestic violence victims seeking shelter from their abusers can now find safe haven with their pets.
The Urban Resource Institute, in partnership with the Mayor's Alliance for New York City's Animals, announced a six-month pilot program Thursday at a Brooklyn domestic violence shelter that will allow battered women and children to keep their furry loved ones with them.
Two dogs and a cat were on hand for Thurday's press conference about the program, called People and Animals Living Safely, or PALS — the first of its kind among New York City's 51 domestic violence shelters.
But at this time, canines are not allowed in the 10 animal-friendly units at the Brooklyn shelter.
Instead, the program, which begins June 1, is open to victims with up to two cats and one additional small pet such as a rabbit, bird, hamster or fish.
Organizers said they hope to phase in dogs starting in December, after the pilot portion is scheduled to end. The shelter's units need to be soundproofed, staff members need to be trained, and outdoor dog-runs must be built before canines can be allowed in, they said.
"URI will need to raise $250,000 to accomplish those goals," spokeswoman Elizabeth Gemdjian said. "Part of that will be from fundraising, part of that will be from grants, part of that will be from partnerships. It's just going to take public support."
The Mayor's Alliance "Wheels of Hope" program currently helps dog-owners planning to enter domestic violence shelter, placing canines with foster families or in no-kill kennels until they can be reunited with their owners.
Domestic violence survivor Muriel Raggi, 25, a rising second-year law student, was among the speakers at Thursday's press conference, alongside her pet Rottweiller, Jasmine.
Raggi, who spent five months in the shelter system but is now out, had to leave Jasmine in the care of a foster family because no shelter would allow them to bring the dog along when she fled her abuser with her 1-year-old daughter, she said.
"I was very much alone," Raggi said, pausing as her voice cracked with emotion. "At night, I laid awake with my mind racing. It was during these times that I missed Jasmine the most."
Organizers said the program is designed to prevent pet owners from having to make that difficult choice, although they didn't say how many openings they hoped to create that would eventually include dogs.
"No one should be put in the difficult position of choosing between their safety and their pets," Urban Resources Institute president Nathaniel Fields said at a press conference at the New York City Bar Association in Midtown. "Pets also provide an incredible source of comfort, particularly in a time of crisis."
The pilot program, funded by the Urban Resources Institute and the Mayor's Alliance, is providing pet food and other supplies for the Brooklyn shelter, the location of which was not disclosed for safety reasons. Organizers said that the $250,000 they hope to raise in the next six months will help them expand the program to the Urban Resource Institute's three other refuges in Brooklyn and Harlem.
The Brooklyn shelter currently houses 120 residents, 80 of them children. The pilot program is expected to cover 10 of the units in the building, officials said.
"This has to become mainstream," said Allie Phillips, a former Michigan prosecutor who began assisting domestic violence victims and their pets in the mid-1990s. "I saw victims walk away hand-in-hand with their abusers too many times because they had to return home to protect their pet."
More than 40 percent of domestic violence victims said they stayed in abusive situations out of fear of what would become of their pets if they left, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. What's more, over 70 percent of the pet owners who have entered shelters said that their abusers had threatened, injured or killed their families' pets.
"Pets are really and often the silent victim of domestic violence," Fields said.