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A Pet’s Place provides a safe place for displaced pets

Marcella Ridgway and Cheryl Ann Weber with Ridgway's dog, Porter
Click photo to enlarge

Cause for paws Marcella Ridgway, a clinical professor of veterinary medicine, and Cheryl Ann Weber, client counselor specialist and adjunct professor at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, are shown with Ridgway’s dog, Porter, a retriever mix. Ridgway and Weber are volunteers for A Pet’s Place, a program that provides shelter, food and medical care to pets while their owners are staying in either of two local shelters for battered women.


“I stayed alive for a fish,” one domestic violence survivor told Jennifer Hardesty, the principal investigator on a study of how relationships with pets affect survivors’ outcomes.

“That was a very powerful statement, but for her that was a comfort. She knew she had to stay alive and she had to get out of the abusive situation to take care of her pets,” said Hardesty, a professor of human development and family studies in the department of human and community development.

Among the difficult decisions that a woman in an abusive relationship may face is the dilemma of what to do with her pets: shelters for her and her children can’t accept pets because of health codes. If she leaves the pets behind, the abusive partner might neglect, abuse, kill them or give them away.

But women in Central Illinois can have a little peace of mind knowing that their pets are safe and lovingly cared for when they seek respite from violent partners in two area shelters.

A Pet’s Place is a temporary pet shelter for pets of domestic violence survivors staying at A Woman’s Place in Urbana or BETHS (Because Eventually the Healing Starts) Place in Tuscola. When a woman decides to leave her home, but has no one to provide foster care for her pets, she and staff members at the shelters can arrange for a volunteer from A Pet’s Place to pick up the pets at the shelter and keep them safe and well cared for for up to 30 days.

A Pet’s Place volunteer is on call seven days a week from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. to transport pets. Kennels and pet food also are at the shelters to keep pets fed and comfortable in the event a woman and her pets enter the shelter when a volunteer isn’t available.

Jill Wojciechowski, a third-year student in the veterinary medicine program, is the program’s student director and has been volunteering with A Pet’s Place since her freshman year. Oftentimes, she is the volunteer answering the pager and taking the animals from their owner’s arms.

Wojciechowski said: “I get thank-you letters all the time from the ladies. They’re very emotional because it’s an extremely stressful day in their life. They have to leave their homes to go to a shelter and then say goodbye to their pet for a while. They’re emotional, but they’re so happy that someone is actually there to take care of their pet so they don’t have to give them to the animal shelter or leave them in an abusive situation. They’re really happy and grateful.”

Pets can be a great source of comfort to domestic violence survivors, and knowing that their pets are safe while they are in a shelter and that they may be able to reunite with their pets when they leave can provide continuity in their lives, Hardesty said.

Hardesty’s research focus is intimate partner violence, and for the past 18 months she has been interviewing domestic violence survivors about their relationships with their pets. Co-investigators on the study are Marcella Ridgway, clinical professor in the department of veterinary clinical medicine, and Cheryl Weber, client counselor specialist and an adjunct clinical professor at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, who are among the UI faculty and staff members associated with A Pet’s Place.

Since A Pet’s Place was founded in 2001, volunteers have cared for 43 animals – cats and dogs as well as rabbits and birds. In addition to receiving food, water, exercise and shelter, the animals receive complete medical exams and basic health care such as vaccinations and screenings for infectious diseases.

Owners can arrange for supervised visits with their pets, but volunteers also provide cuddles and play time with the pets and instruct the owners in proper pet care as needed.

“I think this program helps vet students understand about domestic violence and family violence,” Weber said. “Domestic violence, child abuse, elder abuse, animal abuse can be interrelated. It’s a public-health issue, and I think vets have a role to play in trying to make ‘every home a safe home,’ which is the goal of domestic violence professionals. I sense that most students haven’t really thought about this before they get here.”

Ridgway agreed: “The people here who get involved with A Pet’s Place change as people. They have an understanding of other people at a level which they’d never have attained without the experience they’ve had in the program.

“As vets, we’re so intimately involved with the family because pets are family members. If you’re dealing with the pet family member and you don’t understand the family environment where that pet lives, there’s a big piece missing from that and in the communication with the family that belongs to the pet.”

Teamwork honored

A Pet’s Place was the first to receive the campus’s “Team Award” through the Campus Award for Excellence in Public Engagement, an honor recognizing teams comprising members of the campus community who have made a significant contribution in engaging with the public on a sustained basis to address critical societal issues.

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