Pets face in­creased dan­ger of abuse

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - CITY | STATE - By Re­becca Hennes STAFF WRITER

Do­mes­tic abuse vic­tims are at higher risk dur­ing quar­an­tine, and some ex­perts worry that the pets they stay be­hind with may also be at in­creased risk.

Abuse hot­lines for both peo­ple and pets have seen call surges in the last six weeks as fam­i­lies com­ply with stay-at-home or­ders dur­ing the COVID-19 out­break. The rea­sons are un­clear, but ef­forts are be­ing made to in­crease aware­ness of re­sources avail­able to help both hu­mans and their pets.

“An­i­mal abuse and hu­man abuse is di­rectly linked,” said Harris County Con­sta­ble Precinct 5 Sgt. Charles Jantzen. “For a very, very high per­cent­age of the time in do­mes­tic vi­o­lence cases, there is an an­i­mal com­po­nent in­volved. It is not un­com­mon the abuser will threaten the an­i­mal to keep the vic­tim where they want them.”

The Hous­ton Area Women’s Cen­ter was in­un­dated with vic­tims by mid-March and re­ported a 40 per­cent in­crease in calls for im­me­di­ate as­sis­tance; the Hous­ton Po­lice De­part­ment has seen a 9 per­cent jump in do­mes­tic vi­o­lence calls since late April. Within five days in early April, the Harris County Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s Of­fice filed 139 do­mes­tic vi­o­lence-re­lated charges, ac­cord­ing to Ra­nia Mankar­i­ous, CEO Crime Stop­pers of Hous­ton.

The Harris County An­i­mal Cru­elty Task­force saw 116 more re­ports of an­i­mal cru­elty in March, com­pared with March 2019. It may be re­lated to in­creased aware­ness of the task force, stress from the pan­demic or just ad­di­tional free time, ex­perts said.

“With a lot of peo­ple be­ing out of work and hav­ing to stay at home, they have a lit­tle bit more time on hand to be look­ing for an­i­mals that are be­ing ne­glected and abused,” said Dr. Michael White, direc­tor of Harris County Pub­lic Health’s Ve­teri­nary Pub­lic Health Divi­sion, which is a task force part­ner.

The task force, cre­ated in 2017 to help more ef­fi­ciently and proac­tively re­spond to an­i­mal cru­elty cases across the re­gion, has seen sharp growth each year of its ex­is­tence, or­ga­niz­ers said. Be­fore its cre­ation, there was no cen­tral­ized unit to re­port an­i­mal cru­elty in Hous­ton.

Sur­vivor’s pets

Do­mes­tic vi­o­lence goes hand in hand with an­i­mal cru­elty. Abusers typ­i­cally use a vic­tim’s an­i­mal as a method of con­trol by threat­en­ing to harm the an­i­mal or even in­flict­ing vi­o­lence on the an­i­mal di­rectly in front of the vic­tim.

At least half of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence vic­tims with pets stay in abu­sive re­la­tion­ships be­cause they are afraid of leav­ing their an­i­mals be­hind, said Tama Lundquist, co-founder of Hous­ton PetSet, a non­profit that works to end an­i­mal home­less­ness and found­ing part­ner of the task force. Some vic­tims never leave their si­t­u­a­tions out of fear their abuser might harm their pet, or be­cause the shel­ter where they seek help does not take an­i­mals.

Hous­ton PetSet re­cently launched a pi­lot pro­gram that of­fers free pet board­ing to do­mes­tic abuse vic­tims for up to 30 days. The Hous­ton Dog Ranch lo­cated north­west of the city has part­nered with PetSet on the pro­gram, which also pro­vides vic­tim’s pets with train­ing and al­lows own­ers to visit them dur­ing their stay.

Con­sid­er­ing an­i­mals are some­times harmed by a vic­tim’s abuser, Hous­ton PetSet has also agreed to spon­sor any nec­es­sary vet care. For emer­gency si­t­u­a­tions that arise af­ter-hours, West­bury An­i­mal Clinic has agreed to pro­vide board­ing to an­i­mals for up to 24 hours or un­til they can be trans­ferred to the Hous­ton Dog Ranch.

“When these vic­tims learn there is a safe haven to turn to for their an­i­mals, that’s one less worry that they have and they are more likely to go seek help be­cause they know their an­i­mals are safe,” Jantzen said.

The pro­gram is avail­able to do­mes­tic vi­o­lence ad­vo­cates across the city and county. Even­tu­ally, Lundquist hopes to be able to of­fer it to the an­i­mals seized through the task force, but the rise in do­mes­tic abuse cases as a re­sult of the pan­demic has re­fo­cused her ef­forts.

“It’s not only about the an­i­mals — it’s about the peo­ple who don’t have a voice in these mat­ters, and we are just try­ing to be that voice,” Lundquist said.

‘A red flag’

Sav­ing an­i­mals from abu­sive si­t­u­a­tions and help­ing them re­cover is the main fo­cus of the task force, but for Mankar­i­ous, its cre­ation is also es­sen­tial to iden­ti­fy­ing, un­cov­er­ing and mit­i­gat­ing other types of crime.

“An­i­mal cru­elty is fore­cast­ing a prob­lem for our com­mu­nity,” Mankar­i­ous said. “It is a pub­lic health is­sue, and it is 100 per­cent a red flag that you are deal­ing with a big­ger is­sue that is usu­ally sys­temic.”

Ac­cord­ing to Mankar­i­ous, an­i­mal cru­elty is usu­ally a sym­bol of fam­ily vi­o­lence, which can lead to so­ci­etal vi­o­lence. Chil­dren who com­mit an­i­mal cru­elty can of­ten be­come vi­o­lent later on in life.

“Ninety per­cent of school shoot­ings or school vi­o­lence, the shoot­ers had his­to­ries of mu­ti­lat­ing or killing an­i­mals,” Mankar­i­ous said. “These are red flags to sys­temic is­sues that af­fect all of us, (so) in­stead of ig­nor­ing an­i­mal cru­elty cases, we are say­ing, ‘Take them, study them, pros­e­cute them and file charges.’ ”

The Pre­vent­ing An­i­mal Cru­elty and Tor­ture Act makes some forms of an­i­mal cru­elty a fed­eral felony in the U.S. Vi­o­la­tors can face hefty fines and up to seven years in jail.

In Texas and Harris County, there are two main lev­els of of­fenses for an­i­mal cru­elty. The ma­jor­ity of an­i­mal cru­elty charges are con­sid­ered class A mis­de­meanors and re­sult in a fine not to ex­ceed $4,000 and up to a year in jail. The sec­ond level is a state jail felony, which re­sults in a fine not to ex­ceed $10,000 and up to 180 days to two years in jail. Those charges can be en­hanced depend­ing on the crime and if the de­fen­dant has been con­victed of an­i­mal cru­elty in the past, ac­cord­ing to Jantzen.

“In re­al­ity, there is no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for any of these of­fenses,” Jantzen said. “Re­gard­less if a per­son spends a year in jail or two years in jail, if an an­i­mal is sit­ting at a house and is pro­vid­ing un­con­di­tional love to the hu­man and the hu­man ul­ti­mately treats the an­i­mal in what­ever con­di­tion that is crim­i­nally neg­li­gent, there is no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion.”

Jantzen said while 90 per­cent of the calls the task force re­ceives are typ­i­cally not crim­i­nally neg­li­gent, he en­cour­ages any Hous­to­ni­ans who sus­pect abuse to re­port it to the task force.

“Take that step and to let us look into it,” Jantzen said. “(Even if the is­sue is not) il­le­gal, we can work with the own­ers to im­prove the an­i­mal’s life.”

To re­port an­i­mal cru­elty in Hous­ton or Harris County, call 832-927-PAWS or sub­mit a tip on the task force web­site.

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