Pet safekeeping program making a difference for domestic abuse survivors

By Scott Roblin
November 7, 2018 - 5:29pm Updated: November 7, 2018 - 7:27pm


MEDICINE HAT, AB – Over the years, executive director Natasha Carvalho has seen hundreds pass through the doors of the Medicine Hat Women’s Shelter fleeing abusive relationships.

Over time she noticed a common thread, many were afraid to leave their pets behind.

In April of 2017, Carvalho connected with the Medicine Hat SPCA to try to find a solution that would benefit her clients.

“We know it's a huge barrier for many women in making the decision to leave,” said Carvalho. “So, we thought if we could remove that barrier and have a partnership where they could go and be somewhere, and have their pets be safe as well, that would work well for everybody.”

Now, the SPCA temporarily cares for an average of one to three pets per month for domestic violence survivors through their Pet Safekeeping program.

It’s something that SPCA shelter manager Audrey Becker is passionate about, creating her own internal program over a decade ago for pet owners in crisis, such as those losing their home in a fire.

“That's why I sort of started the program here many, many years ago knowing that it could possibly mean the life or death of someone,” said Becker.

According to the Alberta SPCA, 59 percent of pet-owning survivors in shelters delayed leaving their abusers over concerns of their animals.

Carvalho added it’s not uncommon those cases can lead to tragic results.

“Unfortunately, in many cases the threats against pets are carried out and many times the kids witness it,” she said. “So, it just compounds the already tenuous situation.”

Provincially, the Pet Safekeeping program has grown by over 300 percent over just the last three years in a variety of centres including Edmonton, Calgary, Lloydminster, Red Deer, St. Paul, Westlock, Whitecourt, and Medicine Hat.

While most of the cases involve cats and dogs, Becker said the program covers most other pets such as birds, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, and lizards.

“About the only thing we can't really house would be like farm-type animals,” she said. “But, given enough notice we can attempt to try and find a situation that would work for them.”

The program has posed some logistical challenges however, as the SPCA has been running at full capacity since June.

Becker said they’ve had to get creative with the way they house animals, but added there’s no risk to the future of the program.

“Sometimes it can be a very fine line,” she said. “It might mean some of our normal animals that are here going into foster home to make a little bit more space.”

That support has been critical to the Medicine Hat Women’s Shelter Society according to Carvalho, who said the SPCA are willing to sacrifice their space to assist victims in need.

“That's what sort of makes the work manageable and I think that's what makes sure that the services are delivered in a better, enhanced way for our families that we serve,” she said.

And it’s a partnership that Becker is hoping continues for years to come.

“It's always been an important program and we will always continue to do it,” she said.

The SPCA and Women’s Shelter Society will be teaming up again on November 17 to take part in the fourth annual Pet Walk in Kin Coulee Park, which will help collect items for the SPCA’s wish list.

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