New research from Women's Refuge reveals a huge number of women delay leaving abusive relationships because they fear what will happen to their pets. Today we announce the launch of the first Pet Refuge, a service that will remove that barrier for women looking to escape domestic violence. As part of a three-day series on pets abused in domestic violence situations, we hear from the woman behind the rescue shelter

In 2005 Julie Chapman founded KidsCan, a charity that exists to meet the physical and nutritional needs of New Zealand kids less fortunate than others. Today she embarks on her latest charitable endeavour - New Zealand's first shelter dedicated to housing pets affected by family violence.

I was the kid who was always rescuing things.

Anything that was ill or injured would always end up at our house.

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I would find birds that had fallen out of nests, bring them home, and feed them until they were strong enough to fly.

And it hasn't really stopped.

I have eight rescue cats. One is blind. One is deaf. One has a hole in his heart.

I seem to be the person that adopts the cats others might not want, and that's okay with me.

So as well as helping kids in hardship through the charity I founded, KidsCan, I've always wanted to do something more to help animals.

Then that "lightbulb moment" came. An old colleague was at a Women's Refuge conference, and heard how difficult it is for some women to leave family violence because of their pets.

Heartbreakingly, the family pet is not immune to abuse.

They are used as pawns by controlling partners: beaten, tortured and even killed.

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A survey of women whose pets were abused found 53 per cent delayed leaving the relationship out of fear for an animal's safety.

We want to change that.

We are creating a safe haven for those pets - Pet Refuge - which will be New Zealand's first shelter dedicated to caring for animals escaping family violence.

Julie Chapman, founder of the Pet Refuge, at home with her beloved rescue cats. Photo / Michael Craig
Julie Chapman, founder of the Pet Refuge, at home with her beloved rescue cats. Photo / Michael Craig

We've partnered with the wonderful team at Women's Refuge, and while they help women recover, we'll look after their pets.

We're lucky to have the expertise of the RSPCA NSW too - in Australia they've been running a similar scheme for years.

A big part of this comes back to my parents.

They were always the first to put their hands up to help anyone in need in their community.

Both of them have passed away in the last five years.

Before Dad died, he asked me what I was going to do with the money that I was being left from the sale of their house.

I talked to him about buying some land to be able to get this initiative off the ground, and he gave me his blessing.

It's taken four years' of work, but soon we'll have the shell of a shelter - thanks to the Trillian Trust, the Lindsay Foundation, and our build and design partner Signature Homes.

Now we're asking people to contribute to the real heart of that.

We need pet enclosures, play areas, bedding, food, toys and health supplies to make this space a really calm, comforting environment for traumatised pets.

We've got an amazing animal behaviourist on board who will help them recover.

I know some people will struggle to understand why people don't just put their own safety first, and abandon their pets.

For many people, pets are family. My pets are like my children.

For victims of family violence, it's an even deeper bond, because animals can be their only source of comfort.

When you're constantly told you're worthless, when your self-esteem is at rock bottom, you cling onto your cat or dog.

I can absolutely empathise, because I had my own experience of family violence in my early 20s.

It took me 14 months to get out. The verbal abuse, for me, was worse than the physical abuse, because that was the bit that really broke down my spirit.

Chapman also founded the KidsCan Charitable Trust in 2005.
Chapman also founded the KidsCan Charitable Trust in 2005.

On top of that there might be financial abuse, where victims are denied access to money, and they have often been isolated from friends and family.

All those factors - along with pets being harmed - make it very difficult for people to extricate themselves.

I think for me one of the most important things is to give women and children the ability to leave sooner, to try to minimise that long-term damage, particularly to children.

The first pet refuge for animals living in homes where domestic violence is present has been launched.

When I left school, I worked with a refuge for 18 months, which included looking after the creche.

That was heartbreaking, because you could really see the effects of that abuse.

There was a lot of violence: acting out, hitting, swearing, mimicking what they'd heard at home - things that you wouldn't normally see in 2 and 3-year-olds.

They thought seeing people and animals in distress was normal.

But life doesn't have to be like that.

Just like Women's Refuge is there for victims, Pet Refuge will be there for their pets.

We are one part of a complex issue, but it will mean one less thing to worry about when they plan how to leave.

The dream is to ensure that women, children and their pets are able to be free from violence and able to start new lives together. That's what success will look like.

New Zealand's first shelter dedicated to housing pets affected by family violence is being built. Pet Refuge will provide a temporary safe haven for pets, while their owners escape abuse. But, your help is needed to make that happen.

To donate to the shelter build visit: PledgeMe

If you're in danger now:

• Phone the police on 111 or ask neighbours of friends to ring for you.
• Run outside and head for where there are other people.
• Scream for help so that your neighbours can hear you.
• Take the children with you.
• Don't stop to get anything else.
• If you are being abused, remember it's not your fault. Violence is never okay

Where to go for help or more information:

• Women's Refuge: Free national crisis line operates 24/7 - 0800 refuge or 0800 733 843 www.womensrefuge.org.nz
• Pet Refuge petrefuge.org.nz
• Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day - 0508 744 633 www.2shine.org.nz
• Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and Middle Eastern women and their children. Crisis line 24/7 0800 742 584
• It's Not Ok: Information line 0800 456 450 www.areyouok.org.nz

PET REFUGE: THE SERIES

MONDAY

TUESDAY

Why victims won't leave without their pets

WEDNESDAY
A look inside New Zealand's first Pet Refuge