Yakima resident Melanie had a small dog with her when she met and fell in love with the man who would become her abuser.

The man didn’t like the dog. He complained that the dog shed too much. He started shouting at the dog, and one day punched the dog in the face.

Melanie shied away from giving too many details, but said her abuser became mean and the situation progressed to where she felt she had only one choice for her dog.

“I chose to put him down,” she said. “It had just gotten to the point where I felt he was really going to get hurt. I felt like I was protecting him.”

Melanie described her own emotions at the time as “helter-skelter.” She said she never knew what her abuser was going to say or do. She thought about leaving him. She told him she wanted to leave. But then he surprised her with a gift: a tiny, golden-haired chihuahua.

Melanie named the pup Lulu. But she kept her heart guarded. She was convinced that if she started to love the puppy, her abuser would use that affection to manipulate or control her.

“He was so jealous of anything I cared about. He had hated my other dog because I had loved him,” she said. “I had a lot of walls up with (the new dog). I was afraid that if I got close to her, he would use her to hurt me.”

Their names have been changed because Melanie’s abuser is still actively pursuing her, six months after she left.

Her abuser frequently got drunk, and when he did, he’d roughhouse with the tiny dog. Lulu always ended up getting hurt. Melanie stayed in the abusive situation, keeping an eye on the puppy, until she couldn’t stay any longer.

One day, she asked her abuser to take Lulu for a walk. Her belongings were already packed; when they disappeared down the road, so did she.

“I felt a lot of guilt,” she said. “But I knew it was the only way that I would be able to leave safely. You feel like you are the most selfish person on Earth, to sacrifice the animal’s life for your own.”

October is national Domestic Violence Awareness month, and one consideration — although seldom discussed — could be the key to helping victims escape their abusive situations.

“Pets. That’s an area we don’t talk enough about,” said Cheri Kilty, executive director for the YWCA-Yakima, which operates a crisis hotline to help domestic violence survivors. “Most of the time, pets are a consideration if a survivor is going to leave their abusive partner.”

Studies have reported that between half and three-quarters of female survivors said their partners had made threats, harmed, or even killed companion animals as a means to gain control over them.

Studies also show that given those threats, up to 48% of domestic violence survivors choose to delay leaving abusive situations if they have to leave their companion animals with their abusers for fear about their animals’ safety.

But there’s another option: finding a temporary safe haven for survivors and their pets.

The Animal Welfare Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, rolled out an online repository of 1,200 “safe haven” resources this month, in conjunction with National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The listings, searchable by ZIP code, allow survivors to connect with shelters, nonprofits and veterinary services to safely place their pets so they can seek safety themselves.

“No domestic violence victim should be forced to remain in a terrifying situation or abandon a beloved pet because there is nowhere else to turn,” said AWI’s President Cathy Liss in an agency news release.

It’s a situation that has played out too many times in the Yakima Valley, nonprofit providers here said.

Animal abuse, people abuse

One Yakima woman who took shelter with the YWCA received threats from her abuser that he would kill her dog if she didn’t return. When she refused, the man killed her dog.

Another woman who had fled domestic violence returned to pick up a few belongings and found that her abuser had killed her cat and hanged the animal from a fence post. Other women have told YWCA staff that their abusers have burned, strangled, or given their companion animals away.

“Abusers often want to hurt the things that are most important to the survivor to keep them under their control,” Kilty said. “Survivors never know if the abuser will follow through with the threatened abuse of their pets, and just like their children, they don’t want their pet hurt in any way.”

The number of domestic violence shelters that can accommodate survivors and animals in the United States is extremely limited, with 132 nationwide as of 2019, according to research by RedRover, an animal welfare nonprofit that helps animals rescued from disasters or neglect, domestic violence victims seeking safety with their pets, and animals with life-threatening illnesses. That’s less than 10% of all domestic violence shelters nationwide, despite a reported 67% of American households containing a pet.

In Yakima, Camp Hope is the only shelter that can accommodate both survivors and their animals. Executive Director Mike Kay said he decided to allow animals in the camp because he knew how much their humans needed them, including women escaping from domestic violence.

“That pet is their coping mechanism,” Kay said. “It’s like telling them they can’t have their child, from what I’ve seen.”

Annaleise Flowers, a Camp Hope resident who agreed to have her real name used, cradled a pint-sized brown and white chihuahua-pug in her tattooed arms as she detailed, without blinking, decades of trauma, including childhood sexual abuse starting at age 7 and later human trafficking.

Flowers escaped that life, but not before she fell into drug addiction, depression, and a domestic violence situation with a now ex-husband who she said had choked her and threw her through a door. She later picked up Daisy from a neighbor who didn’t want her and credits the tiny puppy for her sobriety and optimism.

“I rescued her and she rescued me,” Flowers said, crooning her words to Daisy, who yawned and buried her head in Flowers’ chest. “With her, I have to get up and take care of her, and she just lights up when she sees me. She gives me that unconditional love. Without her, I could relapse into that depression again.”

Over the years, Kay said he’s seen residents care for cats, dogs, gerbils, and even snakes. Camp Hope has existing partnerships with local veterinarians who will offer services on a sliding scale, or in some cases the nonprofit pays for services to help keep pets healthy. The nonprofit also benefits from generous donations of pet supplies. Camp Hope offers dog obedience training to help residents with dogs who may need some socialization, which Kay said can help residents keep their pets when they transition to permanent housing.

“It’s so important for people to be able to keep that pet with them, because it’s normalcy for them,” Kay said. “For me, the quicker I can address the trauma, the more likely they will be able to return to normalcy.”

Finding a safe haven

Resources within 50 miles of Yakima listed in the Safe Havens project include Aspen Victim Advocacy Services in Ellensburg and Comprehensive Healthcare and the YWCA Crisis Line in Yakima.

Dawn Brumfield, the program manager from Aspen in Kittitas County, said the organization has worked with survivors who delayed leaving abusive situations on behalf of all kinds of animals: pets, farm animals, reptiles, and exotics. Aspen works with Red Rover to minimize cost of services and also works with community partners, including vets, for help with vaccines, pet care, long-term sheltering and fostering.

Aspen’s resources also include a domestic violence shelter that can accommodate some companion animals on a case-by-case basis.

“We do accept pets, however, we are not set up to have multiple pets and do not have the space for kennels, and ask that pets are not left unattended. This can be a barrier,” Brumfield said. “However, we are fortunate to have the support of our community because they help us minimize these barriers.”

The YWCA has a 24-hour emergency helpline for people to call if they need to talk about their situation or are looking for resources for someone they know, Kilty said. The organization offers a shelter, legal advocates who can help survivors get protection orders or understand the court process, healthy relationships training and safety planning resources. The YWCA also has contacted the Humane Society in the past to help families find a place for their animals while they escape abusive situations.

“We have worked with many survivors and their pets to ensure everyone is safe,” Kilty said. “We will always work with a survivor to identify the best options for their pets.”

Sheryl Haga, the Yakima Humane Society’s director of business operations, said the organization has partnered with both nonprofits and law enforcement agencies in the past when needed.

“As long as we have empty space, we are more than willing to assist with temporary kennel space,” she said. “We understand that agencies that work with domestic violence have a lot of pieces of a puzzle to put together to ensure their client is safe. We want to do our part.”

Haga encouraged survivors to bring vaccination records, medications, and a comfort toy for their companion animals if they have time before escaping or to call an animal control or police officer to retrieve the pet if there is not.

“Remember, your safety is most important,” Haga said. “You can only support your pets if you are able to keep yourself safe.”

For survivors whose pets are an important part of their healing journeys, the extra effort and accommodations are appreciated.

On a sunny day, from a safe place in Yakima, Melanie shared a small part of her story. Lulu, reclaimed, was by her side. Camp Hope staff went with her to a public place to meet her abuser, who handed Lulu over without issues.

“My first week when I was without her, I was so wounded,” she said. “But there are so many people here who are dog people. They understand.

“It’s been such a relief,” she added. “I just can’t imagine not having her with me. As for my life, I feel really good. I thought I was never going to be able to leave him. Now I just can’t believe how happy I am, and how free I am.”

Reach Lex Talamo at ltalamo@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @LexTalamo.