Imagine a witness protection program in which the client is a dog. Whisked to safe harbor, he is given a new name, with all information about his past scrubbed from those protecting him.
Far Side cartoon? It’s hardly a laughing matter for the hundreds of dogs, cats, and other pets that have been protected from harm by the CARE program at Animal Protection New Mexico.
“We often quote the statistic that up to 68 percent of domestic violence victims fail to report their abuse because of concern for the safety of their companion animals,” says Kim Blanchard, manager of APNM’s Companion Animal Rescue Effort program.
She offers as an example a woman who came to them back in October. Let’s call her Jane. Like many women trying to escape violence, Jane was terrified of leaving behind the family dog, since abusers often threaten or hurt pets to control their victims. And few domestic violence shelters in New Mexico take pets, which is where CARE steps in.
CARE volunteers ferried Jane’s dog to one of the 80 or 90 facilities and homes around the state that have volunteered to offer a safe refuge. After 90 days in a shelter, Jane still could not find housing where she and her daughter could reunite with their dog.
That’s when Melba stepped up. As one of the few CARE fosters in a private home, rather than a boarding kennel, she could give the dog a little more freedom and fresh air. Melba took photos and sent reassuring news to the family through CARE.
Like all CARE fosters, she has been guaranteed anonymity by the program to prevent an abuser from showing up at her home and demanding his dog, or information about where the animal might be.
“I knew the dog belonged to a 12-year-old girl. She was so excited to see photos of him!” she says. Being able to help a family escape abuse was its own reward, she says.
“You’re changing the world a little bit at a time,” she says. “And it’s not like you don’t get payback every day from the dogs.”
A dedicated foster for rescue organizations, Melba says she rarely knows anything about the CARE dogs or families – just as they are not told where their dog is being kept. It may seem harsh, says Blanchard, but anything that might tip off the abuser “puts the animal and the foster at risk.”
Since the program is assuming responsibility for someone’s companion animal, CARE has a strict requirement that the pets be kept physically separate from other animals at all times. That’s why they have struggled to find fosters in private homes.
Melba has a system of baby gates and fencing to prevent mixing the pets with her own, which still allows her to spend quality time with the CARE animals. “It is an imposition, but that’s what happens when you try to help someone,” she says.
The program got its start in the late 1990s when APNM took note of how many callers to its animal cruelty hotline said they had no options for getting pets out of a violent home.
“We set up a loose network of fosters and made an appeal to our donors to start the program,” says Daniel Abram, deputy director of APNM.
The program lacked consistent funding and foster homes for many years, but in 2012 APNM established a partnership with the New Mexico Coalition Against Domestic Violence, an umbrella group whose agencies increasingly recognize the “deadly link” between human and animal abuse.
“Through the leadership of Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, we’ve gotten recurring funding in CYFD (Children, Youth & Families Department) as part of their annual budget,” Abram says. “That’s allowed us to really develop the program to keep animals and people safe, with the goal of reuniting them ultimately.”
Knowing the pets will be reunited with their families eventually has made CARE a happy fostering experience for volunteers like Melba. “These dogs have a home that loves them enough to go through the paperwork to get them out of there,” she says.
Another foster named Kelly works for a veterinary office that has hosted CARE pets including cats, birds and ferrets. She said the experience of helping families – both two-legged and four-legged – has been enormously rewarding for everyone at the clinic.
“I would appeal to any clinic to do what they can to support this program,” she says. “It’s a team-builder for your staff because you’re saving a life.”
In late March, after five months and three different foster homes, Jane’s dog was finally headed back to the girl and her mom who had fought so hard to keep him, after APNM located an agency that would help Jane pay the hefty pet deposit at her new home.
“It was a unique situation,” says Blanchard, “in that we had so many people pulling together to help reunite the animal with his family.”