CANTON: Animal abuse is often the first visible sign a family is living with the threat of domestic violence.
More than 70 percent of women who enter a shelter report their abuser has hurt, killed or threatened the family pet. When animal cruelty investigators enter a house, it is not uncommon for them to find that an abuser not only has victimized the family dog, but also the children and other adults living there, according to the American Humane Association.
“Frequently, [victims] won’t talk about their own abuse, but they will talk about the abuse their animals face,” said Joy Wagner, one of the founders of Peace for Pets, a rare animal rescue that alleviates the anxiety of domestic violence victims by offering pets a safe haven, allowing the women, in most cases, to enter a shelter without abandoning the pet to their abusers.
Louisville resident Lori Hissner turned to Peace for Pets last June after police who responded to a call of domestic violence saw her husband choking her while keeping her in a headlock. He was arrested and charged with kidnapping by restraint.
Three days later, he used a sheet to hang himself in his Stark County Jail cell.
Married only 13 months, Hissner said her husband’s verbal abuse escalated to physical violence on her that also sent one of her daughters into anxiety attacks. Even the family’s chocolate Labrador retriever-mix dog, Bear, would slink away and hide in fear during his outbursts.
The day her husband was arrested, Hissner took her family — including Bear — to her mother’s home in a retirement community. They stayed for eight weeks before moving to a shelter and sending Bear to a foster home affiliated with Peace for Pets.
Only a handful of Ohio shelters allow a victim to bring an animal. There are even fewer that coordinate with animal shelters to provide a safe foster home for the pet, said Judith Snyder-Wagner, co-founder of Peace for Pets in Canton.
“We are a resource because a lot of people won’t leave the [abusive] situation because they don’t want to leave the animal behind,” Snyder-Wagner said.
Peace For Pets is among only seven such agencies in Ohio and the only one in the Akron-Canton area, according to a national directory published by Ahimsa House, a member agency of the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Joy Wagner, a lawyer who specializes in divorce cases, said she sees this dilemma as one that victims face regularly.
“What hit home was there was so much violence [observed through] my law practice. One of the first cases I did, a woman had five or six horses, and she wouldn’t leave them while her abuser was still there,” Wagner said.
She and Snyder-Wagner formed the nonprofit, with a six-member board of directors, in 2007. Its original goal: to teach and promote TNR (Trap, Neuter and Return) of feral cats. The women branched out about two years ago when they realized the need for the service for victims of domestic violence.
The agency’s network of fosters will keep any type of animal safe for up to 60 days until the human victims are able to leave the shelter and reclaim their pets.
In more than two years, only three people no longer wanted their pets or were unable to take them back following their stay in a shelter, Snyder-Wagner said, and the rescue quickly found adoptive homes for those animals.
As soon as the agency receives a referral from a domestic violence shelter, it quickly takes steps to get the animal from the victim, out of the home with the help of a relative or family friend, or a court order and police escort, if necessary.
The animal is immediately taken to a veterinarian for any needed medical attention, quarantined for up to three days, then placed in one of 15 foster homes. Ten additional volunteers stand ready to take the animals to the vet, represent the rescue at public gatherings or work on a fundraising letter it sends out annually.
Since October, the agency has raised $3,500 in the campaign.
Before winter sets in, volunteers raise funds by building and selling feral cat shelters with the zoology club at Malone University in Canton.
Today, Hissner and her daughters Ashley and Kaitlyn — along with Bear — are safe, well and living in a new home away from painful memories. She attended classes, became state-certified as a nursing aide and has been hired into a new job.
Hissner said she has many reasons to thank the women of the rescue, especially Snyder-Wagner, with whom she interacted the most.
“I love her to death. She doesn’t just care about the pets, she cares about the people, too,” Hissner said.
Peace for Pets will send a representative to any civic group that would like to hear more about the program. For more information, go to www.peaceforpets.org or call 330-484-9537.
Kathy Antoniotti can be reached at 330-996-3565 or firstname.lastname@example.org.