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Rita Garza considers herself very fortunate. In the past 18 months, she has been able to combine her “two passions: improving services and increasing awareness for victims of domestic violence” with her “deep love for animals.” Rita works for Urban Resource Institute (URI) in New York, an “incredible organization” that’s “always willing to step forward with innovations.”
One of the alarming trends she learned in the course of her work was that as many as 49 percent of women stay in abusive situations out of concern for the pets’ safety. Another statistic: More than 70 percent of pet-owning women entering shelters report that their batterer had threatened, injured, or killed their pets.
“We [at URI] needed to be educated by the animal welfare community and reached out to the Mayor’s Alliance for New York City’s Animals,” said Rita. “They had launched a People and Pets in Crisis Program years ago…and had been waiting for an organization like ours to come forward.” Before 2013, none of New York City’s 50 emergency domestic violence shelters offered refuge to families with pets. In May 2013, URI became the first with its People and Animals Living Safely (URIPALS), the nation’s first co-sheltering initiative.
URI’s “platform is being nimble, responsive, and innovative,” said Rita. “In the social services world, you do not follow the ‘Field of Dreams’ model—you do not build it and they will come, because you want funding, you want infrastructure. But we followed the Nike model: ‘Just Do It.’” After 18 months, they have sheltered more than 29 families, 26 cats, 13 dogs, and three turtles.
“Partners such as Purina provide critical support for the pets,” she said, including supplies and underwriting a dog park at the shelter. Because Rita’s three rescue dogs had “sacrificed so much time with their mom,” as she worked to launch URIPALS, she took them to visit the facility. “They were very proud and impressed,” as she showed a photo of her dachshunds scampering in the canine playground.
Rita then introduced Pamela, a survivor of domestic abuse, who told her story of leaving her abuser with her “three cats in tow.” Thanks to the efforts of URIPALS, she was eventually able to shelter with her pets, and has since moved on and started a new life in her own place. “The URIPALS program is so important,” said Pamela. “If it’s available to victims of domestic violence, the victims will leave their situations sooner instead of later. Some don’t get to leave later.”
Rita thanked Pamela for sharing her personal experience, a powerful example of the importance of keeping pets and owners together. “The future is better with pets,” she said. “The future is that domestic violence shelters will have programs like ours across the country.”
She urged the audience at the Better With Pets Summit to “talk about domestic violence all the time—because it happens all the time.” But most of all, Rita concluded, “we have to make it easier for victims of domestic violence to seek help, with their pets, to stay together as a family, and to move forward as a family.”