New research from Women's Refuge reveals a huge number of people delay leaving abusive relationships because they fear what will happen to their pets. This week we announced 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 look into why victims don't "just leave".

TRIGGER WARNING: the following account contains descriptions of domestic violence. Please take care.

"Why doesn't she just leave?"

It's perhaps the most common question when it comes to women living in violent or abusive relationships.

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And new research by Women's Refuge has revealed that for hundreds of victims every year, pets and animals often keep them in dangerous homes.

This week in a three-day series the Herald is shining a light on the issue and revealing details of Pet Refuge, a new shelter set to open which will house animals while their owners leave violent homes.

In a survey of almost 1000 domestic violence victims who had experienced a partner abusing or threatening a pet, the research showed 53 per cent of them delayed leaving the relationship because they feared what would happen to animals left behind. As well 41 per cent said they or their children had been made to watch their pet being harmed by their partner.

The abuse described was horrendous - animals punched, kicked, strangled, thrown, drowned, stabbed, put in microwaves, run over; often while victims watched on, powerless to help them.

READ MORE: First Pet Refuge to open in NZ, helping victims of domestic violence house animals while they chase safety

The reasons victims don't simply pack up and leave when they are being abused by a partner are complex.

Many don't have the financial means to leave; to pay set up fees and rent on a new place to live or to support themselves.

Others feel they have to stay because of their children, business commitments or threats of what will happen if they leave.

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And now we can give insight into the hundreds of victims who do not leave because the idea of leaving their beloved pet behind with a violent abuser is incomprehensible.

"For many women living with intimate partners who use abuse to exercise power and control over them, animals represent both a source of comfort and a source of vulnerability," the research concluded.

"Pets and farm animals can represent some of the most meaningful relationships in victims' lives, and for many, these constitute family relationships."

The research found that many victims chose to stay, at least temporarily, to offer some form of protection to these animals.

"Many participants considered leaving without their animals as unthinkable… Participants perceived that they needed to act as a buffer between the abuser and the animal."

One victim said the times she tried to leave was when her abuser would hurt her pets the most.

"Or when I went home to 'teach me a lesson' so I wouldn't try to leave again," she explained.

"The three cats and two dogs he actually murdered [when I didn't return] he videoed and showed me when I was stupid enough to go back."

The research pinpointed three distinct motivations for abusers turning their violence and threats towards pets - control and intimidation, assertions of supremacy, and silencing of disclosures.

Criminologist Greg Newbold said the prospect of a pet being harmed was a very real fear for victims.

Criminologist Greg Newbold. Photo / NZME
Criminologist Greg Newbold. Photo / NZME

And that, very simply, was why they stayed with their abuser - no matter how bad their life was.

"They don't want their animal to be abused," he said.

"They don't want the animal to be neglected, not fed - the person who owns the pet would not leave them out of fear of something like that happening.

"They love the animal, they know it will be lonely without them… people look upon pets as they do their children, a lot of women and men have very close relationships with their pets.

"When someone is in a relationship where they feel isolated and alone and unhappy, I think it's utterly understandable they would form a strong attachment to their pet.

"Their pet may be their best friend, it might be the only thing that actually gives them any love… so you can definitely understand why they don't leave."

Newbold said the Pet Refuge was a "great" idea and he was surprised the concept had not been implemented in the past.

He said he, and likely most other Kiwis, had not given much thought in the past to the correlation between pet abuse and interpersonal violence.

But it was an obvious and very real issue in New Zealand.

"I think the refuge will make it easier for women to leave abusive relationships, if their animals are going to be safe and looked after," he said.

"It makes perfect sense."

The chairwoman of Pet Refuge is someone who knows the effects of domestic violence all too well.

Glenda Hughes was a police officer for many years and now sits on the Parole Board.

She further explained why animals were used as pawns in family violence situations.

"A certain percentage of people involved in domestic violence use the dog or the cat as a vehicle to manage their partner," she said.

"Domestic violence is not just bashing, it's manipulating and controlling.

Dr Ang Jury, chief executive of Women's Refuge. Photo / Michael Craig
Dr Ang Jury, chief executive of Women's Refuge. Photo / Michael Craig

"I don't think people realise that… people don't see the correlation to the animal being a member of the family.

"When we explain it people get it, but it's not something thought of naturally.

"There's a lot of people who just don't know about it."

Hughes, who has degrees in criminology and sociology, said an early incident in her policing career left her patently aware of the link between pets and domestic violence.

In the 1970s - when she was just 19 - she was deployed to a house in Wellington to break up a fight between a couple.

"I remember it clearly, there was a dog there and the screaming was all over the top of the dog - I was standing there realising the connection," she said.

"There are many reasons why victims don't just leave - often the animal is their comfort and they know what's going to happen to their pet if they go, they want to protect the pet.

"There is often a connection between the family pet and the children so the victim is walking out the door with the kids and then leaving behind the one unconditional friend they have… it's a really hard call."

Hughes said removing any barrier to victims leaving was crucial.

"Pets aren't a barrier for everyone, there are a whole lot of other things involved too," she said.

"But if we can identify one barrier we can get people to a better result sooner before there's more serious damage done.

"The situation is that there is violence towards pets in domestic circumstances and it does stop people progressing.

"Anyone in a violent situation, we try to get them out - we need to start thinking that we need to try and do the same for animals as well."

Women's Refuge chairwoman Dr Ang Jury urged people to put themselves in a victim's shoes before asking why they don't "just leave".

"It's truly terrifying to have someone say 'if you try and leave I'm going to kill the cat' or 'if you don't do this, I will do this'... for a lot of women their pets are part of the family and it's having a family member abused and hurt," she said.

"Women that responded to the survey talked about the fact that their dog or their cat or their horse was the only really trusted close relationship that they had - they had been alienated from family and friends and their pet was integral to their life.

"If we just stop and think for a minute of the impact of having somebody say 'if you leave me, I'm going to shoot the dog' and then going and taking the dog and tying it to the fence outside and going and getting a gun…

"Whether or not they follow through on that - and actually that has happened - that sort of demonstrates the abuser will kill, will hurt somebody to get what they want."

Pet Refuge founder Julie Chapman acknowledged there would be naysayers - people who simply did not understand why anyone would stay in a violent relationship for the sake of a cat or dog.

Julie Chapman with her pet goats. She has been a lifelong animal lover. Photo / Pet Refuge
Julie Chapman with her pet goats. She has been a lifelong animal lover. Photo / Pet Refuge

"There are a lot of different things that are going on which prevent women from leaving and this is one of them," she told the Herald.

"Pets become like family and quite frankly you wouldn't leave anyone in your family behind would you?

"Non pet people might not get that, but most people will."

Chapman, who escaped an abusive relationship in the past, said Pet Refuge was one part of the family violence jigsaw.

"We are part of the solution, we're not the whole solution," she said.

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. We need your help.

To donate to the shelter build visit: http://pldg.me/petrefuge

If you're in danger now:

• Phone the police on 111 or ask neighbours or 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

WEDNESDAY

A look inside New Zealand's first Pet Refuge