PORTLAND, Maine – Spurred by growing evidence of a link between domestic violence and animal abuse, Maine has enacted a first-in-the-nation law that allows judges to include pets in protection orders for spouses and partners leaving abusive relationships.
In helping pets, advocates hope to help battered women and others who aren't willing to abandon their animals to be saved themselves.
"This is a very innovative, new approach, and it makes perfect sense because the protection order is a critical stage for women and others seeking protection," said Nancy Perry of the Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society of the United States.
Gov. John Baldacci says the law, which provides for civil penalties such as fines or jail time for those who violate a protection order, should give pause to abusers who might resort to violence or threats against pets as a means of keeping their victims from leaving a relationship.
Law enforcement officials, animal welfare agents and advocates for domestic violence victims say it's not unusual to hear of abusers who vent their rage against a partner's pet.
"It's just another tactic to keep power and control over the victim," said Cindy Peoples of Caring Unlimited, a shelter in York County.
Susan Walsh, whose dog and sheep were killed by her husband, said many victims stand to benefit from including pets in protection orders.
"I've heard so many horror stories from other women that I knew I was not alone," she said.
When the bill came up for consideration at a public hearing in January, Walsh recounted how she remained in an abusive marriage in part out of fear for what might happen to her pets and farm animals if she left.
Walsh said her husband shot two of her sheep inside their Ellsworth barn. Another time, when she was visiting her parents in Pennsylvania, he deliberately ran his truck over her deaf and blind border collie in their driveway, she said.
Walsh, who stayed in the marriage for more than 12 years before her divorce in 2001, said she would have left sooner had it not been for her responsibilities to the animals.
"It's kind of hard to pack up a whole barn full of animals," she said. "And I knew that any animal I left behind would be dead in 24 hours."
The law was an outgrowth of a seminar by the Maine State Bar Association in June on the connection between animal abuse and domestic violence, said Anne Jordan, a Portland lawyer who serves on the Animal Welfare Advisory Council.
During an informal discussion after the presentation, a judge raised the idea of expanding the scope of protection orders, Jordan recalled.
Legislative support was overwhelming, said the bill's sponsor, Rep. John Piotti, a Democrat. He and others cited a study that found that 71 percent of pet-owning women in a Utah shelter said their abusers had either harmed, killed or threatened their pets.
Although Maine's law is unique, other states have statutes that reflect the link between domestic violence and animal abuse. Laws in California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Nebraska, Ohio and Tennessee encourage cross-reporting among agencies involved in law enforcement, domestic violence, child protection and animal control, Perry said.
Animal welfare agents already have been looking at ways to help potentially endangered pets whose owners are in abusive situations.
"A growing trend is called safe havens. These are cooperative agreements between shelters for women and shelters for animals," Perry said.
Several agencies in Maine participate in a program called PAWS — Pets and Women to Safety — that arranges confidential placement of animals in foster care so their owners can move into a shelter knowing that their pets will be safe.
The Animal Welfare Society in Kennebunk has a PAWS program that works with Caring Unlimited. "They've worked with all kinds of pets and farm animals," Peoples said, "from cats and dogs to horses and exotic birds."