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Harlem Shelter Lets Domestic Violence Survivors Live With Their Pets

By Gustavo Solis | August 13, 2015 5:58pm
 Having her two dogs with her has helped Jasmin recover from an abusive relationship.
Loving Pets
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HARLEM — When Jasmin ran away from an abusive relationship, she refused to go without her two shih tzus.

“The idea of me leaving them and running was not an option,” she said. “It never crossed my mind.”

So instead of going to a domestic violence shelter Jasmin stayed at her mother’s house with her pets, Tony and Teresa. For months she lived in fear of bumping into her ex.

The two had been together for more than 18 years. They knew each other’s families and ran in the same social circles. Jasmin was only able to relax when she found out about a domestic violence shelter that welcomes pets.

“When I read about the PALS program, it sounds a little cheesy and dramatic, but it was a miracle for me,” she said. DNAinfo is withholding Jasmin's last name because she is a resident of the shelter.

The PALS program allowed survivors of domestic violence to bring their pets into an emergency shelter run by the Urban Resource Institute. It offers medical services to pets and connects residents with a specially trained PALS coordinator to help people and their pets adjust to their new surroundings.

The program, which was the first of its kind when it launched in Brooklyn in 2013, has helped 36 families with 54 pets including 34 cats, 15 dogs, four turtles and one fish, according to URI.

URI expanded the program into one of its two Harlem shelters, the organization announced in July. To protect the identities of the residents, DNAinfo is not disclosing the address of URI’s shelters.

The program started as a way to prevent people from having to choose between staying in an abusive relationship and leaving their pets. As many as 48 percent of domestic violence victims stay in abusive relationships out of fear of what would happen to their pets if they leave, according to URI.

For URI’s CEO Nathaniel Fields, who is not a pet owner, it was a little difficult to understand why someone would risk their safety for their pet. But after doing research and speaking with survivors he recognized a real need for a program like this.

“It created a situation where people didn’t want to leave," he said. "Our goal is not to put them in an impossible situation to choose. It took me a few seconds to get that because I’m not a pet owner.”

Twelve of the Harlem shelter's 45 units are pet friendly. They are currently converting an outdoor space into a dog-friendly area where residents can play with their pets.

Both the people and pets go through an intake process before entering the shelter. Trained specialists work with them to help them recover from the abuse, get their lives back on track and eventually find permanent housing.

It is common for pets to also be survivors of abuse, said Jennifer White-Reid, the vice president of Domestic Violence Programs for URI.

Chandler, a cat who had been tied up and put into a microwave had a particularly difficult time adjusting to the shelter, she said.

“Chandler would always run and hide whenever a strange visitor walked into the apartment, particularly a male visitor,” White-Reid said.

Animal behavior specialists from ASPCA worked with Chandler’s owner and shelter staff to get the cat to open up to strangers, she added.

Being able to live in a domestic violence shelter with her two dogs has helped Jasmin recover from the physical, verbal, and emotional abuse she endured during her long-term relationship, she said.

“It’s a different kind of relationship than a human relationship,” she said. “You get so much from them. They give me so much love. It’s an unconditional love you get from your pets. It’s a healing love, when you are feeling depressed of anxious they have a very real energy that they give to you.” 

If you or someone you know is suffering from domestic violence call the city's domestic violence hotline at 1 (800) 621-4673.