It is often a pet which keeps a battered partner in an abusive relationship, for fear their attacker will retaliate against the animal. With foster homes now available for pets, will more victims be encouraged to escape?
By Megan Lane
BBC News Online
Anne finally left her abusive partner when she came home to find her beloved dog Bruno cowering in a corner, broken glass scattered all around.
No longer need the pet be put down
Her partner had wrecked the flat and smashed all the windows, leaving Bruno terrified. It was the first time he had turned his anger on the family dog - until then, Anne had put Bruno in the garden when she sensed trouble brewing.
But the refuge to which she and two young children fled could not take Bruno in, and Anne worried desperately about his safety. Abusers often threaten to hurt or kill pets if their partner leaves - and those who work with victims say some prefer to endure daily beatings rather than upset their children by abandoning the animal.
While at the refuge, Anne was put in touch with the charity Paws for Kids, which helps 36 refuges in north-west England find foster homes for pets. Other organisations have pilot schemes in the South West, Leicester and Scotland, and a similar service is planned for London.
Safe from harm
"It was just such a relief," Anne says. "I knew Bruno would be well looked after and I could get on with sorting out our new life." After eight months, Anne and her children found a new home and were reunited with Bruno.
Some cats are very timid when they arrive, so I can only imagine how they've been treated
Anne has no idea who to thank for looking after Bruno, since the service is confidential. Pets are placed well away from their old homes, and all the foster carer knows about the animal is its name. This means the abuser has little chance of tracking down the pet and using it as a lever against the victim.
The gradual spread of such services across the UK comes as the government prepares to crack down on domestic violence. Among measures planned is a register of men convicted of assaulting their partners (although men are battered too, it is almost always the woman who is the victim).
Carole Marsden, of Paws for Kids, says she saw the need for the service during her 12 years working in women's refuges.
"Time and again we couldn't find women accommodation because they didn't want to leave their animals behind. A pet is very much part of the family, and the majority of families do have animals."
Jane, from Manchester, has been taking in foster pets for more than four years, having been among the first to sign up when Paws for Kids started in March 1999.
Police and refuge workers put victims in touch with the service
"I first fostered a dog - I'd always wanted a dog, and it seemed a good way to have one while I was renting a flat. I've since moved to a flat that's unsuitable for dogs, so I now foster cats. I was never a cat person before - they scared me to death - but I am now. All 12 cats I've fostered have been lovely."
She is currently caring for Jet, a lively black moggy who has chewed her pot plants to death.
"As some of the cats are very timid when they arrive, I can only imagine how they've been treated. Once they realise I'm the only one here and I'm not scary in the least, they calm down."
As well as providing a service to those in need, foster carers like Jane also enjoy the companionship their temporary pets offer. She has ME and so is home alone much of the time; others are elderly, or otherwise unwilling or unable to commit to a long-term pet.
Out of harm's way
"People ask me all the time if it's a wrench to see them go," Jane says. "I know it sounds heartless, but as much as I love to have them with me, I'm also pleased to see them go.
"I get back the freedom to go away, to stay out with friends. But within a few months, I'm ready to have another cat about the house."
For more information about the service, see Internet Links on the right.