The Ahimsa House

Inside the shelter for abuse victims' pets

Our pets are often our lifelines, our support, and our best friends. They keep us sane through times of crisis. Now imagine what it would feel like if you were forced to give up your pet.

That is the sad reality for many domestic abuse victims. Nearly three-fourths of abuse victims report that their abusers also are violent or threatening to their pets, usually as a way to control the human victim. This poses a major hurdle in leaving an abusive relationship; only one in eight domestic violence shelters in the U.S. accepts pets.

That's where the Ahimsa House comes in. Ahimsa, which means nonviolence in Sanskrit, is a network of foster families and boarding facilities designed to keep pets safe while women negotiate new lives away from their abusers. The organization, located in Atlanta, works in tandem with women's shelters and counselors across Georgia to ensure that victims are receiving help, while also helping the victim's animal with any medical or behavioral issues. Ahimsa House director Maya Gupta took me through the specifics.

What kind of animals do you take at the Ahimsa House?

We really get a mix of everything. We get dogs and cats, and we just had a horse. We had a ferret for awhile. We see a lot of animals that haven't been spayed or neutered. The abuser is controlling the victims' access to vet care and so the animal suffers.

So I'm in an abusive situation, and I want to leave and take my dog to the Ahimsa House. How do I do that?

There are two basic scenarios that occur when the Ahimsa House takes in animals. One is when someone finds us directly. And that happens more and more as people are starting to take the first steps toward considering leaving and they're doing research on the Internet, which can be a great tool for victims, but can also be really dangerous because abusers can track them.

But if they find our website, they can call our 24-hour hotline, and our services coordinator, who is trained in crisis intervention, will work directly with them and can provide a range of services for them directly. For example, we can help make sure that their animals' vaccinations are up-to-date and that the animals' records are in their name, which stops an abuser from tracking an animal or getting a dog back in a court situation.

The other scenario is that someone will contact us through a domestic violence shelter. We don't require that they be staying at a shelter, but we do work fairly extensively with the domestic violence shelters in Georgia, and most of our referrals come through there. So hopefully, when women come into the shelters, the staff will say, "What about your animals?" and then they refer to us.

How do you verify the status of the person who's dropping off the pet?

We do require that everyone who is seeking our services be connected with some kind of a human service agency, basically so we make sure that they're also working toward getting themselves safe. Someone at the shelter just writes a letter of support saying they are working with the person.

Sometimes people will say, "Well, I'm not ready to leave yet, but I don't want my cat to continue getting abused." And we understand that, but our focus is on emergency care.

The Ahimsa House receives no government funding and spends around $400 a month to care for one victim's pet. In the last three years, they have received more than 800 crisis calls. To donate to the Ahimsa House, or to find out how to volunteer, visit www.ahimsahouse.org.