It is common practice for the perpetrator of domestic violence to lure family members back home, or prevent them from leaving, by threatening to harm the pet. Sometimes it is also the lack of pet-friendly accommodation options that stop people from leaving a dangerous situation.  With the RSPCA NSW Safe Beds for Pets Program, families can now leave domestic violence situations and not fear for the safety of their pets.

Rebecca Higgins is a Community Programs Senior Case Worker for RSPCA NSW Safe Beds for Pets.  We asked Rebecca to tell us more about this invaluable service.

Pets4Life: How did the RSPCA NSW Safe Beds for Pets come about?

Rebecca: RSPCA NSW has always assisted with crisis accommodation for animals where possible, and we recognised there was a need to dedicate more resources to this area. RSPCA NSW believes that pets are an integral member of the family, and all family members need protection and safety when experiencing domestic violence. We acknowledged that families leaving domestic violence often had to unwillingly leave their pets behind, and we wanted to help find a solution to this prevalent problem. We approached domestic violence services to gain more knowledge of this issue, and in 2004, with close consultation St George Domestic Violence Service, the Safe Beds for Pets program was started. The Safe Beds for Pets service is available throughout NSW.

Pets4Life: Over time, have you seen a growing number of families who need help with looking after their pet during a domestic violence crisis?

Rebecca: The Safe Beds for Pets Program has helped almost 1000 clients trying to escape domestic violence since we began over 13 years ago. Our number of referrals seem to increase every single year, although we believe this is not because there is a growing number of families needing our assistance, but because services and clients are now more aware of our service and the help we can provide. In turn, by knowing there is help out there, our clients are more able to seek assistance for their pets, rather than have to leave them behind or surrendering their pets, often as a means of protecting them.

Pets4Life: What services do you provide to help a family in a domestic violence situation?

Rebecca: Safe Beds for Pets provides a range of services depending on the individual needs of the families and pets. Our core service is providing emergency boarding for animals of families needing to escape domestic violence. Whilst in our care, we can also arrange veterinary treatment, including basic care such as vaccinations and desexing, as well as many other treatment options that may be needed. All animals in care are de-identified, and only Safe Beds for Pets staff members have access to client and animal information, to keep the animal protected.

Through all of our Community Programs, we can offer foster care for animals that come into boarding. We try to limit Safe Beds animals going out to foster care, simply because there is a heightened risk involved due to the nature of them needing boarding. If an animal needs to go to foster care for their own well-being, then we take all necessary precautions to ensure they and the foster carers remain safe. We ensure the animal did not come from the area where the foster carer lives, and we often give the animals a different name and collar to minimise the risk of them being identified by members of the public.

Some clients may already be safe in their new environment, but they still need financial assistance with veterinary costs, and so we can provide assistance with those costs. We often help with impound fees at local pounds, transportation costs including domestic and international travel, and we can often give clients care packs including food, bedding and toys to get them back on their feet. In the last year alone, we have helped transport a group of 6 horses interstate, flown two American Staffies from Australia to Italy, and paid impound fees for a dog that was left on the street by the ex-partner as an act of revenge. Every client’s story is unique, and they all have individual needs, and we do our very best to address all of these needs.

Pets4Life: Can you share a story of a family who has benefited from RSPCA Safe Beds for Pets?

Rebecca: Every family has a unique story and an individual experience, and we always try to recognise this and constantly adapt our services to best fit the client’s needs.

Sarah first called us about Buzz when her ex-partner surrendered him to the Hunter shelter. She wanted to take Buzz with her when she first left the domestic violence situation, but her partner refused to let her take him, and it was too risky for Sarah to continue to stay. When Sarah found out he was surrendered, she was desperate to get him back, but was still in a women’s refuge looking for accommodation, and could not keep Buzz there. We agreed to help board Buzz at our Hunter shelter until Sarah could find a suitable place for them both to stay.

While at the refuge, Sarah’s ex-partner found her and continued to pose a great risk to her safety, so she had to move to the North Coast in order to remain safe. Based on this we moved Buzz to our Sydney shelter, to reduce the risk of the ex-partner trying to get at Sarah through Buzz. Soon after arriving in the North Coast, Sarah found a friend to stay with, and she could take Buzz there too! We organised to transport Buzz from Sydney to the North Coast, and Sarah drove to pick him up. They were very excited to be together again, and Sarah was extremely grateful for all the assistance we were able to offer to her and Buzz. Safe Beds for Pets allowed Sarah and Buzz to remain as a family unit, and Sarah expressed that she relied on Buzz’s love and companionship to help her through that very difficult time in her life.

Pets4Life: How do families thinking of leaving a domestic violence situation access Safe Beds for Pets?

Rebecca: Families needing assistance from Safe Beds for Pets can contact us directly through our hotline, which operates Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm. Our number is 02 9782 4408, and they can speak to any of the case workers to get help for their pets. If assistance is needed outside of these hours, we can also be contacted by email, [email protected], or a call can be made to the RSPCA Contact centre, 1300 CRUELTY, and they will make a referral to our department. Domestic violence services can also make a referral or enquiry on behalf of the client.