Katie* left her husband after suffering seven years of abuse, but said she would have left at least 18 months earlier if there was somewhere safe she could have temporarily housed her dog and two cats.
"I was concerned about leaving my dog in the home for fear that my husband at the time would take off with my dog," she told the Herald.
"There was an element of leverage there. He knew the bond between me and my dog was very strong and to a similar extent with my cats, and he did capitalise on that to manoeuvre me into situations that were uncomfortable in the extreme."
Pet Refuge is opening its doors in Auckland today. It aims to provide a safe haven for pets of people like Katie who are experiencing abuse and plan to leave a relationship. It is transporting pets from around New Zealand to the shelter.
The charity provides a temporary home for the pets, looked after by a team of experts, while their owners relocate.
It's the brainchild of former KidsCan CEO Julie Chapman. She said it's a hidden issue and thousands of survivors delay leaving a relationship because of their pets.
"We know that ... pets can often be used for control and coercion.
"Many abusers will threaten to harm pets or actually physically harm them in order to control, in particular, women and children."
Chapman said abuse towards pets can include withholding food, locking them outside, kicking them and sometimes even killing them.
A shocking Women's Refuge survey in 2018 shows just how widespread the demand could be for Chapman's services.
More than half of 900 respondents who had experienced abuse said they delayed leaving out of fear for their animal's safety.
Seventy-three per cent said they would have found it easier to leave if there was a shelter offering temporary accommodation for their animals.
Almost half experienced a partner threatening to harm, kill or get rid of an animal for the purpose of coercing them to do something.
"[My husband] did recognise that he was in a position of power and could use the pets to get me to do what he wanted," Katie said.
"He would refuse to exercise the dog, feed the dog, spend any time with the dog."
At one point Katie spent a couple of days in her car with her dog, parked up at beaches and anywhere she could find, after feeling threatened by her husband.
"I piled my dog into the back of the car and found myself driving around and around in the countryside, essentially looking for a place to go."
She felt anxious about going away and leaving her pets alone with her husband.
One weekend when she did, she came home to find them unfed, there was no water left out and her dog was showing "stress symptoms, like being really flighty", she said.
Another time Katie said her husband tried to "coax the dog into the car, which set the precedent that he could get the dog to go wherever he wanted.
"I was definitely concerned that the dog would be neglected."
Pet owners nationwide can now arrange for Pet Refuge to pick up their animals at a certain time and location that fits in with their plan to leave an abusive situation. For people living elsewhere in the country, arrangements can be made to have pets transported to the Pet Refuge facilities free of charge.
The complex sits surrounded by serene countryside on the outskirts of Auckland. The grounds are peaceful and quiet, perfect for any animal or person who has been traumatised by abuse.
Chapman and her team have clearly thought of every possible need for the animals, even building their own veterinary room and bedroom for any vet that needs to care for an animal overnight.
Each spacious cat and dog enclosure has an array of toys, climbing structures and fluffy beds for the animals to explore - even underfloor heating.
On the glass door of each enclosure a document can be filled out detailing everything about the pet and its behaviour, and an animal welfare care plan will be designed specific to each animal by a team of experts.
The pooch outdoor play area has a ball pit and see saw among the toys, while there's a separate outdoor obstacle course.
Up to 31 cats, 16 dogs and 15 small animals, such as birds or rabbits, can be housed at any one time.
There is also a safe farm network for anyone with horses, sheep or cows, Chapman said.
Staff monitor the animals' behaviour for any signs of trauma. A behaviourist is available to provide therapy for animals who may have also been victims of abuse, a feature that sets Pet Refuge apart from any normal shelter.
Pets can stay for as long as needed while their owner looks for new accommodation.
"[It's] a peaceful place for pets to recover from any trauma they may have suffered until they can actually be reunited with their owner," said Chapman.
"It's just part of the jigsaw and one of the barriers we are able to remove for [owners]."
But Chapman recognises owners may struggle to find a pet-friendly rental home.
She's urging landlords who do have suitable properties to contact her.
"It's no secret that we've got challenges in our housing market in New Zealand.
"We'd love to hear from any landlords that have pet-friendly rentals. If we can help our clients with a place to live they can be reunited with their pets sooner rather than later."
Pet Refuge is working with police, Women's Refuge, Shine and other organisations to make sure those that need the service are offered it.
When construction of the shelter first began in 2019, Chapman had more than 100 people contact her enquiring about the service.
"Now that we are open, we expect we'll be receiving lots of requests," she said.
The charity currently has five dogs and two cats in the shelter, with more due in the next few weeks.
When the Herald visited, fluffy toys, beds and even "cat condos" were among the carefully-curated facilities lying in anticipation, desperate to be played with.
The shelter has been built with financial support from the Lindsay Foundation and Trillian Trust, and kitted out by the likes of Unitec students who built the "cat condos" and Masterpet and PETstock who donated toys.
Chapman has poured her inheritance into the project. A plaque of her parents' names sits proudly on the front of one of the larger cat enclosures.
More than 300,000 Herald readers also donated towards the construction during a Christmas campaign in 2020.
Anyone can contribute $25 a month to sponsor a pet in the Safe Beds for Pets giving programme. The money will be used to help cover bedding, heating, transport, medications, vet healthcare, enrichment toys, animal behavioural therapy and the cost of expert animal carers, case workers and support staff.
As a pet lover herself, Chapman said it's surreal to see the project finalised.
"I'm hugely excited that we're actually able to start helping people, that's the main thing."
Katie said the new shelter will be a genuine help for many survivors of abuse.
"I would have been able to have somewhere to take my pets without having to beg neighbours, and friends and family who found they weren't in a position to help," said Katie.
"I probably wouldn't have had such a trauma to get over."
*An alias has been used for anonymity.
To donate $25 a month, or make a one-off donation, visit www.petrefuge.org.nz.
For help with an animal call Pet Refuge 0800 PET REFUGE - 0800 738 733 843 - or email
DO YOU NEED HELP?
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 acceptable.
Where to go for help or more information:
• Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day - 0508 744 633, www.2shine.org.nz
• Women's Refuge: Free national crisis line operates 24/7 - 0800 refuge or 0800 733 843, www.womensrefuge.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
• For men who feel they're going to harm a loved one, call 0800 HEY BRO or 0800 439 276