Ernie doesn't fit the standard profile of a domestic violence victim. He's male, first of all, and his four legs and tail also set him apart. But the little Chihuahua and countless Colorado Springs pets like him have suffered for years right alongside their battered owners.
Now they have a safe place to go.
More than 60 pets from abusive homes have found refuge through Safe Pets, started in 2004 by TESSA, a local domestic-violence prevention program and safehouse, and the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region.
"We were seeing a lot of clients who were going into the safehouse who were really worried about what was going to happen to their pets when they left," says Angela Schillaci, volunteer development program coordinator for TESSA. "It was a barrier to them choosing to leave."
Batterers often punish their human victims by abusing or killing family pets, according to the Humane Society of the United States. In a national 1997 survey of battered women entering shelters, 85 percent mentioned episodes of pet abuse.
In one recent incident, an Arizona man fighting with his wife slammed their Chihuahua to the ground twice and then tossed it into the windshield of a car, killing the animal. In another, a Florida man arguing with his girlfriend repeatedly threw their kitten against a wall, fracturing its face and killing it. In 2004, a Pueblo man stomped a cat to death during an argument with his wife.
The connection between domestic violence and animal abuse is so strong that two states, Maine and Vermont, passed laws this year authorizing judges to include pets in protection orders. Similar laws are pending in New York and New Jersey.
Help on the up-and-up
Safe Pets and programs like it there are more than 150 nationwide give domestic violence victims a way to abandon abusive situations without also abandoning the animals they love. The local program was recently expanded to include TESSA clients who aren't staying at the safehouse, but who still need a temporary home for their pet.
The Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region helps by training prospective foster families and providing food and medical care for the animal.
"We take the animal in and evaluate it, make sure it's safe to put in a home," says Ann Davenport, the local humane society's director of community resources. "There have been times when you see an animal badly enough abused that it has a mistrust of strangers that leads it to behave aggressively."
Pets in the program receive microchip implants for identification and, if unaltered, make a trip to Hamlett Spay and Neuter Clinic. There's no charge to the owner.
"The goal is to give that pet owner a way to bridge the gap," Davenport says. "Since they can't have the pet with them in the safehouse, the pet can be somewhere safe while they are getting ready to move on to their new life."
Most fostered animals are dogs and cats, but Safe Pets once took in four young bunnies two males and two females in a single cage. That sent humane society workers scurrying to separate the new arrivals, Davenport recalls. Foster volunteers also are trained to care for birds and reptiles.
"Foster families love to help with this program because they know that, almost every time, their animal is going to be back with its loving owner," Davenport says. Of the 60-odd animals who have been through the program, only two or three ultimately were relinquished by owners, she says.
Still, there are no guarantees. The fostering period can last from a few days to a few months, and pet owners may reclaim their animal at any time. It's rare but not improbable that a woman returns herself and her pet to an abusive situation.
That doesn't deter the longtime foster mom who's caring for Ernie the Chihuahua. Because volunteers remain anonymous to ensure their safety we'll call her Amy.
"My job is to just take care of the animals, to make sure that animal is safe and cared for, and to give it lots of love and attention," Amy says. "It's kind of like being a grandparent: I get to have them, play with them, spoil and pamper them and then send them home.
Typically, volunteers are told little about an animal's history, but its behavior can speak volumes.
"The dogs seem to show up the worst," Amy says. "You just touch them and they flinch, so you know they've probably been hit. They don't trust you."
Amy recalls one young dog that seemed frightened of everything.
"I tried to take it for a walk, and it was afraid of the mailbox. It was afraid of the bushes, of anything that moved. It was a 2-year-old Lab, and it should have been playing and enjoying life."
But a little love goes a long way, she says.
"They respond. They come around. Animals are very forgiving. They never forget they've been abused, but they will forgive, and love again."
Foster volunteers are needed. For more information on Safe Pets, contact Angela at TESSA, 785-6809.