Houston Chronicle Sunday

Pets face increased danger of abuse

- 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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