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. This week we announced the launch of the first Pet Refuge, a service that will removed 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 at how the new shelter will run

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

Animals entering New Zealand's first shelter dedicated to pets affected by domestic violence will go from fear to fun and cowering to cuddles - and have every luxury possible as they recover from their terrifying traumas.

Details of how Pet Refuge will operate can now be revealed, as well as illustrations of where the abused animals will be housed, where they will play and how they will be cared for.


Carefully designed enclosures, comfy beds and exciting play areas await cats, dogs, birds and other small pets who will be taken in - and medical and health care right at hand for any in need.

The shelter, under construction in the Auckland area, is expected to open in April and will take in pets affected by family harm while their owners leave abusers and find their own safe haven.

An artists impression of what the Pet Refuge shelter will look like. Image supplied/Pet Refuge
An artists impression of what the Pet Refuge shelter will look like. Image supplied/Pet Refuge

When possible, the pets and owners will be reunited.

New Zealand has the worst recorded rate of domestic violence in the developed world.

We have more people beaten or belittled, throttled or threatened, abused or alienated in their own homes than any other country.

There are many reasons why people won't leave their abusers - and one that has been highlighted this week is pets.

Alongside horrendous domestic violence, mainly against women, pets and animals are routinely harmed in Kiwi homes.

Abusers use violence and threats against pets as a way of controlling, coercing, dominating and silencing their victims.


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

But the founders of a new shelter for pets affected by such abuse hope that their service will enable victims to leave their situations much sooner - and potentially save lives.

Pet Refuge is expected to open in the Auckland area in April next year and will house up to 24 dogs, 35 cats, 15 birds and 15 other small pets at any given time.

Larger animals - horses, sheep, goats and the like - will be cared for on one of a network of safe farms.

The service is available for victims nationwide and will operate alongside Women's Refuge, who will make the appropriate referrals.

The location of the refuge cannot be published for safety reasons.

The land was purchased by Julie Chapman, the founder of KidsCan, and her family.

The majority of the funds for the initial build was donated by the Lindsay Foundation.

The fit-out will go ahead once $250,000 has been raised - and donations have been pouring in this week via a crowdfunding page.

But how will the shelter work? Who will run it? And what happens to the animals when they go there?

"We're almost like a boarding facility, but we're completely free and confidential," said Chapman.

"We'll bring them in and look after them and be their guardians until they can be reunited with their family in a violence-free home."

Chapman said each pet would have a case worker who would keep in regular touch with the owner, providing updates, videos, photos and reassurance their pet was being loved while they transitioned into their new life.

Pets could be housed at the shelter for months if needed

And if owners found they could not take the pets back, they would be taken on by other animal lovers.

"For safety reasons, the owners cannot come to the shelter and see the animals," Chapman explained.

"But the case workers will work directly with them."

When the pets are ready to go home, there will be an "ongoing committment" by the shelter to make sure their transition is supported.

"When pets leave, we will provide all the basics they might need - food, flea and worm treatments - for the first three or four months after," Chapman said.

"We'll make sure we look after them."

Pet Refuge founder Julie Chapman with one of her eight rescue cats. Photo supplied/Pet Refuge
Pet Refuge founder Julie Chapman with one of her eight rescue cats. Photo supplied/Pet Refuge

All animals will be assessed for trauma when the arrive at the shelter, as many would have been physically harmed.

"The number one thing for us is also the mental health of the pets," explained Chapman.

"They will have been traumatised before they come to us and a lot of time and effort will be put into making sure the shelter is, as much as possible, a homely place for pets to be."

An animal behaviourist is training Pet Refuge staff - who will use things like music, massage and chiropractic work to ease the animal's suffering and anxiety.

"And we will cover vet cost to make sure they are healthy," said Chapman.

New survey-based research from Women's Refuge this week revealed that hundreds of victims delayed leaving domestic violence because of their pets and just under 70 per cent had a partner who threatened to harm or kill a pet.

Close to half of the people surveyed said they had been made to watch their pet or another animal be harmed by their partner, or their children had been forced to watch.

Artists impression of the Pet Refuge dog play area. Photo supplied/Pet Refuge
Artists impression of the Pet Refuge dog play area. Photo supplied/Pet Refuge

The litany of 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.

Chapman said the level of cruelty shocked her, and made her even more determined to get the shelter up and running as soon as she could.

The new shelter has been modelled on a similar scheme in New South Wales, run by the RSPCA there.

RSPCA NSW community outreach programs manager Sandra Ma spoke to the Herald about the success of the Australian shelter.

It opened in 2005 and since 2012, more than 1450 victims have been helped.

Ma said last year alone 167 animals were put into the shelter and 87 per cent were reunited with their owners.

"We offer transport for pets, interstate and overseas if needed, in order to help pets to escape the violence," she said

"We also assist with impound fees as often the perpetrator, after the victim leaves, will dump the animal at the pount or leave them out on the road and they get locked up.

"The service has grown over the years and in the last financial year we helped about 130 individuals - on average we help between 100 and 200 each year."

Cats housed at the refuge will hang out in this play area. Image supplied/Pet Refuge
Cats housed at the refuge will hang out in this play area. Image supplied/Pet Refuge

Ma said animal safety was the primary concern and she was pleased so many people had been able to reach out and seek help to get them away from domestic violence.

"Unfortunately, pet-friendly accommodation is not always an option and they are faced with leaving their pets or staying because they want to protect them.

"Occasionally people do have to just leave, but there are many who choose to stay and remain in violent situations because they don't want to be separated from their pets, they don't want them in harm's way."

Ma said the service was just one piece of the domestic violence "puzzle".

"It gives us more options for individuals," she said.

"It allows then to leave violent situations and have their pets looked after in a safe place… prior to this service there wasn't a lot of options."

Work began on building the Auckland shelter last week.

Once the building is up, the fit-out will begin.

Dogs and cats will have separate enclosures and play areas.

Bedding, toys and "enrichment and exercise equipment" will go in as well as a health clinic.

Chapman said "every cent" donated would go towards the animals.

"This is so important," said Chapman.

"When people read about the level of abuse and types of abuse these animals are put through they will be shocked.

This is what the dog sleeping enclosures will look like in the new Pet Refuge. Image supplied/Pet Refuge
This is what the dog sleeping enclosures will look like in the new Pet Refuge. Image supplied/Pet Refuge

"To know that women mostly and children (mostly) are having to live with this situation with their pets and that some of them can't leave because of it is pretty disturbing.

"It's going on right here in New Zealand - it's important that we expose it and do something about it."

Chapman said animals were just one reason victims didn't leave domestic abusers and walking away from such a relationship was a complex issue.

But she hoped that removing the barrier of animal care would help at least some victims - or even save lives.

"We're not the solution, but we're part of the 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:

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
• Pet Refuge
• Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day - 0508 744 633
• 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