The S.A.A.V. Program – Sheltering Animals of Abuse Victims Program

The Sheltering Animals of Abuse Victims Program was featured in the November issue of O Magazine, in an article devoted to the link between domestic abuse and animal cruelty:

O article

Wisconsin State Journal

Originally Posted On: Sunday, March 16, 2008  –  Yet not enough progress has been made since then
Section: LIFESTYLE  –  Edition: ALL – Page: 1 – Byline: By SANDRA KALLIO 608-252-6181

Memo: Editor’s note: To protect the women – and their pets – mentioned in this story, the women’s names and hometowns are not revealed.

The woman had survived decades of verbal, emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her husband, but her situation changed several months ago. The abuse escalated and her husband threatened to kill her beloved dog.

Shame had kept her from talking about the abuse before, but fear for her life led her to contact Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (DAIS) staff in Dane County several months ago. They had a space for her, and a place for her pet – something most programs for abused women don’t offer and a reason some women hesitate to leave their homes.

“They’re overly full and underfunded usually,” said Megan Senatori, explaining why shelters for abused women don’t accept pets.

To address the link between family violence and pet abuse, Senatori, a Madison lawyer in private practice who also teaches animal law at UW-Madison and Marquette University, teamed up with Pam Alexander, law program director for the Animal Legal Defense Fund in Madison. They collaborated with DAIS and the Dane County Humane Society to start the Sheltering Animals of Abuse Victims Program (SAAV), a nonprofit organization that provides emergency animal foster care for pets of abused women seeking shelter.

Among the recent users is a mother of three small children. Talking about her abuser and the family pets, she told Senatori: “Without the SAAV Program, I really didn’t know what I would do. He shook the kitties to try to discipline them; I couldn’t leave them there alone. Thanks for keeping them safe. I can’t wait to get a place so I can get them back again.”

A connection?

Abused women’s concerns about their pets’ welfare is well-founded, according to multiple studies, including the 1998 research by Frank R. Ascione of Utah State University, who later created a guide for programs sheltering pets for women who are battered. He found that of 74 percent of battered women seeking shelter who had pets in the past year, 71 percent said their partner had either threatened to harm or had harmed or killed their pet.
“Abuse of pets is a lethality predictor,” Senatori said. The relationship is somewhat more complicated, explained Darald Hanusa, a psychotherapist who works with batterers through the Midwest Domestic Violence Resource Center in Madison.

“Yes, it is a predictor of lethality – but only for the most violent of batterers,” Hanusa said. Careful not to overstate or underplay the relationship between abuse of a partner and her pet, he said, “There’s definitely a connection. If someone is abusive to their partner, they’re more likely to be abusive to children and to their pets.”

Most of the men committing verbal and psychological abuse but not severe repeated violence do not report having abused their partners’ pets, but, Hanusa said, “One thing that can show up is men will use pets as a way to threaten and scare their partners.”

Pet abuse or the threat of it would become reason enough for a restraining order in domestic abuse cases if legislation passed by the State Senate on March 6 becomes law.

State Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, author of Senate Bill 162, said, “Few domestic abuse shelters allow animals, so consequently many battered women will not leave an abusive relationship or they will delay leaving because they do not want to abandon their pets. The abuser will often threaten to harm or kill the animal if the woman leaves. Too often these threats are carried out.”

As one example, Senatori told the story of a woman staying in a shelter in northern Wisconsin whose abuser cut the ears off her dog with garden shears as revenge for her decision to leave him. His ploy worked. The woman returned to her abuser to protect her pet.

Risser also explained how the bill, which was being considered by the Assembly last week, could impact children by making it easier for an abused woman to get a restraining order to protect herself and the family pet: “Seeing or hearing abuse has a dramatic effect on children. It can become a model for how children view others. Children who witness this kind of abuse are at a much higher risk of becoming abusers themselves.”

Senatori referred to three studies showing that 18 percent to 40 percent of women seeking shelter at a crisis center said their concern for the safety or well-being of a family pet prevented them from seeking shelter sooner – in some cases for more than two months.

A woman’s connection with that pet may be her closest relationship. “Sometimes that’s your only companion,” Senatori said, talking about how batterers isolate their victims from others. “Pets can be a real source of comfort.”

“My cat is so important to me. He’s the light of my life,” said one woman, now in her 30s, who was abused in her 20s and worried about her cat, Chester, whenever she left the house. “He’s my baby.”

Her boyfriend never physically abused her, but, she said, “he was verbally and emotionally abusive and he would throw these rages. He would scream at me and call me names and throw things and make threats. . . . He used to say things like, ‘It would be really sad if anything ever happened to Chester.'”
When she told him to move out of her apartment, he delayed for weeks. “I’d go to work every day and I would be worried about my cat,” she said. “It was hard driving home from work. I was always so nervous to go home, especially after I had told him it was over.”

If verbal push came to physical shove, she knew she could seek shelter with her family but also knew they couldn’t have Chester move in, too.

“I didn’t want to leave him,” she said about her pet. “If there had been a SAAV Program then, I would have made up an excuse like ‘Chester had to go to the vet,'” she said, explaining how she would have escaped the apartment with her pet if the situation worsened.

Protecting the pet

While this woman and her kitten escaped physically unscathed, Senatori didn’t want pets to be the reason women stayed in dangerous situations – or put themselves in harm’s way when trying to retrieve a pet after leaving.

Now when women call the DAIS crisis line, staff ask whether they have a pet and whether they are concerned for the safety or welfare of the pet, said Shannon Barry, DAIS executive director.

Women who escape abusive relationships average seven attempts at leaving before the break is permanent, so many of the women DAIS assists will be going back to their abusers.

“We let them know there’s this support for them,” Barry said about the emergency pet care. “We’re one of the few programs in the state that has this.”

Since 2003, SAAV has placed about 36 animals in foster care while the 20 owners were in domestic abuse shelters or living with a relative or friend who couldn’t also house the pet. Senatori expects the number to grow with SAAV Program awareness.

“We also serve countless domestic victims with pets via the DAIS crisis line, as well as by raising community awareness about the role of pets in domestic abuse in public training and media,” she added.

Drop-off of pets differs, with victims sometimes showing up at the DAIS shelter with pets or with DAIS arranging for escorts by Dane County sheriffs or Dane County Humane Society officers.

“We’ve had turkeys, a horse, goats, dogs and cats, of course, birds, hamsters,” Senatori said. “I think we had an iguana.”

She talked about a woman who relied on the program to keep her kitten safe during the summer of 2007. Referring to the woman’s written comments to SAAV, Senatori said, “She indicated on our form that when she found out her pet could be safe, it helped her decide to leave her abuser. She said that she felt comfortable, secure and relaxed while her pet was in shelter.”

That woman also wrote: “Thank the Lord for angels and people with a good and kind heart.”

One of those “angels” is Renee Miller, who has no pets of her own at this point and enjoys the flexibility of fostering animals when her work demands and vacation plans allow the time.

“I do it for the animals to help them continue as comfortable a life as they can have being in a new space,” she said. “It’s kind of the best of both worlds in that I get to help animals and I also get the companionship of animals.”

Recently fostering two dogs through the SAAV Program, she said, “They’ve adapted really well.” Like all SAAV volunteers, Miller went through standard pet foster training plus training about domestic abuse to learn about the link between family violence and pet abuse.

“These pets have not come from happy homes,” Senatori said. “A lot of the pets are really scared.” Volunteers learn how to deal with, for example, a traumatized kitten that hides under the bed all the time. They also learn about the cycle of domestic abuse and why some women might stay in abusive households so that they understand the dynamics involved and don’t blame the victims, Senatori said.

While understanding what victims go through is important, the pet care givers will never know the name of the woman, nor will she be told who is sheltering her pet. Their point of contact is the Dane County Humane Society or DAIS to preserve anonymity on both ends for the sake of safety. Pet owners, though, can get updates about their pets through DAIS.

Pets stay in the SAAV Program for up to 90 days, after which the woman might retrieve her companion animal or perhaps decide she can’t keep a pet at this time of her life. Sometimes foster families adopt pets.

Senatori said, “The SAAV Program was not created to ensure a specific outcome but rather to provide domestic abuse victims with the comfort of knowing their animal companions will be safe should they have the courage to leave.”

Said DAIS director Barry: “Anything we can do to remove barriers to people’s safety, we’re going to do.”

To learn more

Domestic abuse victims wishing to use the Sheltering Animals of Abuse Victims (SAAV) Program should contact Domestic Abuse Intervention Services’ 24-hour Help Line, 251-4445 or toll-free, 800-747-4045.

To learn more about the link between family violence and pet abuse, or to volunteer for the SAAV Program, send an e-mail to or visit

For information about domestic violence in our community, visit

All content © Wisconsin State Journal and may not be republished without permission. – Permission has been granted if materials not used for profit.

SAAV Megan Senatori's much loved Mav / November 2008

Kick My Dog – Kick Me by Megan Senatori

Pets Are Victims Of Domestic Abuse Too: Spread The Word.

You may not know it, but pets, like humans, can become victims of domestic abuse.

In fact, the abuse of pets in violent homes is so common that studies have confirmed the “link” between pet abuse and domestic abuse. For example, a 1995 survey of 72 women seeking refuge in domestic abuse shelters in Wisconsin found that 86% of the women had pets and in 80% of those cases the batterer had abused the pets. (See note 1)

Why would a batterer target a defenseless animal? At its core, domestic abuse is about the batterers exercise of power and control over the family. In most American households, pets are full-fledged members of their human families. However, unlike humans, pets obviously cannot report abuse and, as a result, batterers may more easily hide and get away with pet abuse. Batterers know this. They, therefore, routinely use pets as a tool of domination – to teach the human members of the family submission, to make the family keep secrets, to punish the victim and/or the children, to coerce the victim to stay, or to retaliate against the victim for leaving. The abuse of a family pet is also symbolic – brutality to the family pet serves as a vivid and horrifying “reminder” to the rest of the family of the consequences of failing to submit to the batterer’s demands. Sadly, victims and children wishing to protect their pet from abuse often feel that they have no option other than to stay in a violent home.

Because domestic abuse shelters typically do not allow pets, victims with pets face an undeniable reality: Leaving the batterer may mean harm, or even death, to a beloved family member, their pet. Faced with this horror, studies confirm that many victims delay leaving or never leave in order to protect their pets from abuse. Three separate studies have documented that from 18% to 40% of victims seeking shelter at a crisis center reported that concern for the welfare of their pet prevented them from seeking shelter sooner, in some cases for more than two months. (See note2) The number of victims who never leave due to concern for the safety and well-being of a pet is immeasurable. We did not want human victims of domestic abuse to ever to have to “choose” between their own safety and the certain death or abuse of their animal companion.

The SAAV (“Sheltering Animals of Abuse Victims”) Program is an all-volunteer 501(c)(3) organization based in Dane County, Wisconsin, that provides emergency confidential foster care for pets of domestic abuse victims receiving services or shelter from our local domestic abuse organization. Through a network of foster parents, we provide homes to the pets of domestic abuse victims for a period of up to 90 days. The SAAV Program is possible due to generous collaboration with Domestic Abuse Intervention Services and the Dane County Humane Society, both also based in Dane County, Wisconsin.

Over the years, we have provided shelter for pets ranging from dogs to horses and even, to a little hamster named “Faith.” The ultimate goal of the SAAV Program is to reunite the families we serve in a safe environment after the foster period. However, due to the complex dynamics of abuse, sometimes a victim and her pet will return to the abusive household. Other times, a victim will decide to relinquish her pet for adoption at the end of the foster period. However, regardless of the end-result, the SAAV Program offers a valuable service by providing safety to human and animal victims of domestic abuse when they need it most. We have Faith to know that it makes all the difference.

Note 1 Arkow, P., “The Relationship Between Animal Abuse and Other Forms of Family Violence,” 12 Family Violence and Sexual Assault Bulletin 29 (1996). Studies nationwide bear out similarly.

Note.2 See Ascione, Frank R., “Safe Haven for Pets: Guidelines for Programs Sheltering Pets for Women Who Are Battered,” page 1 (2000).
Victims wishing to utilize The SAAV Program should contact the 24 hour crisis line at Domestic Abuse Intervention Services at: (800) 747-4045.
For information about the SAAV Program, or starting a safe havens for pets program in your community, please visit the SAAV Program online at By email: Or by mail at P.O. Box 5152, Madison, WI 53705.

SAAV Program  –  Cross-Posted at: Just One More Pet

There are direct correlations between animal, domestic, child and elder abuse. Abusers are abusers!  Please report suspected abuse as soon as you notice a problem!!  Be part of the solution!!

About Ask Marion

I am a babyboomer and empty nester who savors every moment of my past and believes that it is the responsibility of each of us in my generation and Americans in general to make sure that America is as good or even a better place for future generations as it was for us. So far... we haven't done very well!! Favorite Quotes: "The first 50 years are to build and acquire; the second 50 are to leave your legacy"; "Do something that scares you every day!"; "The journey in between what you once were and who you are becoming is where the dance of life really takes place". At age 62 I find myself fighting inoperable uterine Cancer and thanks to the man upstairs and the prayers from so many people including many of my readers from AskMarion and JustOneMorePet... I'm beating it. After losing our business because of the economy and factors related to the re-election of President Obama in 2012 followed by 16-mos of job hunting, my architect-trained husband is working as a trucker and has only been home approximately 5-days a month since I was diagnosed, which has made everything more difficult and often lonely... plus funds are tight. Our family medical deductible is 12K per year for two of us; thank you ObamaCare. But thanks to donations from so many of you, we are making ends meet as I go through treatment while taking care of my father-in-law who is suffering from late stage Alzheimer's and my mother-in-law who suffers from RA and onset dementia as well as hearing loss, for which there are no caretaker funds, as I continue the fight here online to inform and help restore our amazing country. And finally I need to thank a core group of family, friends, and readers... all at a distance, who check in with me regularly. Plus, I must thank my furkids who have not left my side through this fight. You can see them at JustOneMorePet.
This entry was posted in Common Sense, Family and Friends, Pets, Solutions, We Are All God's Creatures and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The S.A.A.V. Program – Sheltering Animals of Abuse Victims Program

  1. Pingback: Animals Companion Safety

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s