Vet Ethics: Abuse at home – addressing the animal aspects

The Victorian parliament has been presented with a motion that would recognise animal abuse as often intimately related to family violence. Advanced by Animal Justice Party MP Andy Meddick, the motion aims to address the serious problem of women (and sometimes men) who are unable to leave abusive relationships due to the risks to their animal companions. 

The Victorian motion comes at a time when the abuse of women is a major issue in Federal Parliament and around the nation. The assault of women can have many causes, but often it is related to sexist views and to power imbalances.

The problem raised by the Animal Justice Party resembles the position that victims of domestic violence are placed in when an abusive partner threatens their children. A victim may want to leave and find a safer place but cannot because of the real fear that animals may be harmed. Furthermore, some places of refuge do not accept animals attending human victims.

The idea behind the proposition is that financial assistance could be provided to women survivors to allow them to e.g. find alternative accommodation for their animals. Also, there could be provisions to accommodate animals with the victims themselves. A further possibility is amending the Family Violence Protection Act 2008 to incorporate recognition of the vulnerability of animals and their guardians in domestic violence situations. Animals are frequently abused when family violence occurs.

Animals, as we know, can be treated as family members and relied upon for emotional support. Indeed, animals can be especially important psychologically to those who have suffered violence, intimidation, and manipulation. 

Yet animals are also owned ‘property’. As Kristen Deimer and Cathy Humphreys point out in The Conversation, this means that if the perpetrator officially owns the family animal, the victim may be legally unable to remove the animal from the violent circumstances. 

From an ethical point of view, the proposed changes are important insofar as they may protect the welfare of both human victims (usually women and children) and also the animal victims. Animals who are subjected to violence may obviously both physically and psychologically, such as by developing anxiety.

The decision of a perpetrator to threaten the victim with harming their animal is particularly chilling. The threat exploits the fact that the victim cares deeply about the wellbeing of the animal. Moreover, the victim is placed in a terrible situation in which she must choose between protecting herself or her animal. 

One Victorian woman was reported as saying: “If there were times that I was trying to flee the house he would grab Gypsy and threaten to kill her and I would stop and turn back, because I didn’t want the animals hurt”.

For some victims, the choice to leave may be clear (though still awful)—such as when children are threatened. However, some victims may find the choice between staying and leaving not only emotionally traumatic but also morally traumatic. Even when they decide it is the right thing to leave, the victim may still feel regret and guilt for any harm that subsequently comes to the animal.

NSW and many US States have already put in place protections for animals and human victims facing family violence. NSW for example recognises that threatening an animal is a form of intimidation of the perpetrator’s partner. Violence to the animal can itself be deemed a form of domestic violence and animals can be listed on Apprehended Domestic Violence Orders. 

Such changes belatedly align with existing scientific knowledge that animal abuse and human abuse are often linked.

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