COLUMBUS - She lived with her two cats and her dog in her car for two weeks.
The fear that kept her from going back home was the same fear that made her leave. She was afraid of what her abuser at home would do to her and her pets.
But after 14 days, she knew she needed help. That is when she turned to the Center for Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Survivors in Columbus. That woman, a Center for Survivors client, is one of many who might have had their pets threatened or who witnessed abuse to animals at the hands of their own abuser.
According to statistics, there are ties between animal abuse and human violence. To help educate the community on that link, the Center for Survivors is launching an animal cruelty/human violence campaign called The Connection.
"Our goal with this campaign is to raise awareness of the correlation between animal abuse and all forms of domestic and societal human violence," said Debi Widhalm, volunteer coordinator. "We are primarily targeting area veterinarians, law enforcement, animal control agencies, our area humane society, educators and adult and child protective services."
The campaign got started after staff attended two national conferences that reported on the connection between animal cruelty, which includes neglect, physical abuse or the killing of an animal, and human violence.
"Animal abuse is a serious crime in its own right. However, the ties between animal abuse and human violence are unmistakable. The evidence is compelling. Animal cruelty is just one aspect of a social environment marked by violence," Widhalm said.
Through months of research on the subject, Widhalm and other committee members came up with numerous statistics and background information to support the correlation. Those correlations can be seen in domestic violence, child abuse and elder abuse cases.
Some of the statistics are:
Animals are frequent targets in domestic violence situations. Abused children might take their frustration out on a pet. Adults might maim or kill a family pet to show control over a spouse or children.
75 percent of women entering shelters are pet owners. Of those women, 71 percent said their abuser either injured or killed their family pet.
In 88 percent of homes with prosecutable animal cruelty, children were also being physically abused.
In more than two-thirds of cases involving elder abuse, the perpetrator may neglect or abuse the elder's pet as a form of control or retaliation, out of frustration over their caretaking responsibilities, or as a way to extract financial assets from the victim.
Evidence has also been seen locally at The Center for Survivors. Widhalm said that since she and other staff members learned about the link between animal cruelty and human violence, they began asking clients if animal cruelty was present in their situations. Many of the clients have said their pets have been abused or even killed by their abuser.
When looking at the cases, Widhalm said animal abuse serves as a predictor of other violent and abusive behavior.
Animal abuse is often found in the background of homicide, vandalism and arson perpetrators, Widhalm said. Many serial killers and even students involved in recent school shootings have histories of abusing animals first before moving on to human targets.
"People who are violent to animals rarely stop there," she said. Widhalm said many young children go through a stage of "innocent cruelty" where they might hurt insects. But if that behavior persists or if the child turns that behavior on to larger animals like dogs, cats and birds, that child may be living in an abusive environment and is at risk of future violence and criminal activity.
Also, a child who abuses an animal may be imitating parents who have abused them or other family members. The child may feel helpless and hurt the only member of the family who is more vulnerable than he or she is - the family pet.
Staff members at the Center for Survivors have incorporated what they learned about the connection into their work. They use animal abuse history as an indicator in abuser lethality assessments. They have also started programs like pet therapy in which volunteers take their pets to visit women and children in shelters to help teach them empathy for animals. The Center for Survivors also offers to find shelter for companion animals.
Widhalm said prior to going to the conferences, she wasn't aware of the connection between animal abuse and human violence, but now she wants to educate the community on the link. Staff members are available to make presentations on the subject to any service groups or organizations.
"(Animal cruelty) is just one part of the cycle and it is very important that we get the word out," Widhalm said.