In Florida, a man repeatedly punched a helpless kitten and slammed her against a wall before burying her alive in the dirt. His intention, according to news sources, was to punish his wife for “failing to discipline” the weeks-old animal. He then forced his wife to come outside to watch as he dug up the cat from the dirt and then killed her in a gross misuse of power. One can only imagine the terror and helplessness the human victim experienced as she watched this horror unfold. On disability and with limited financial resources, she knew it would be so difficult, from an economic and personal safety perspective, to leave.
While the vivid details change, these victims were hardly the first ones to face this kind of dynamic. All across the country, abusers threaten to harm or even kill their victim’s pet as a way to instill fear and maintain emotional and physical control of their victim. Those subjected to this violence may have no other choice but to go to a domestic violence shelter. Their options, however, are severely limited. Only three percent of shelters have the capacity to accommodate pets. It forces far too many women to make a painful choice between their own safety and the safety of their pet, and many stay in a dangerous situation for fear that they or their pet will be harmed or killed if they don’t conform.
As a partial antidote to this terrible cycle of abuse, Congress has enacted, and President Trump has signed into law, the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act to crack down on domestic violence, recognizing that in order to fully protect domestic violence victims, we must protect their family — and that includes their pets. The PAWS Act creates critically needed domestic violence protections for pets and also authorizes a grant program to assist shelters with creating accommodations for pets.
The PAWS Act amends the current federal domestic violence laws to prohibit an abuser from killing, injuring, harassing, stalking or engaging in conduct that places a victim in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury to their pet. This includes using the mail or other electronic communication to engage in conduct that would make a victim fear for their pet. Violating this law carries a penalty of up to five years. These protections are already available to the domestic violence victim and their family – and now the protections are extended to include their pets as well.
The grant program will provide emergency and transitional housing assistance so that more victims are able to flee an abusive situation with their pet. The Act authorizes $3 million per year for Fiscal Year 2019 through Fiscal Year 2023 to allow more shelters to make accommodations — a modest amount, but it will serve as valuable kick start for programs built around these principles. Congress must now take the next step of appropriating money to fund the program when they take up the Fiscal Year 2020 spending bill. We expect lawmakers on the Appropriations Committees to be supportive of the effort.
In addition to enhanced protections from harm and the authorization of a grant program, the Act also explicitly authorizes the collection of restitution for veterinary medical expenses. Current federal law already allows for collection of the “full amount of the victim’s losses,” which includes medical services, lost income, and attorney’s fees, among other expenses, and it makes sense that an abuser should be also be held responsible for veterinary expenses.
We applaud Agriculture Committee Chairs Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX) and Ranking Members Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) for including the PAWS Act in the Farm Bill, and we especially thank the Senators for taking the powerful step of ensuring that PAWS was part of the base text of the Senate’s version of the Farm Bill. We also thank Reps. Katherine Clark (D-MA) and Jeff Denham (R-CA) and Sens. Gary Peters (D-MI) and Dean Heller (R-NV) for their outstanding work to build support for the underlying legislation and to advocate for its passage. In fact, the PAWS Act gained tremendous support during the 115th Congress, with 251 cosponsors in the House and 42 cosponsors in the Senate.
At a time when partisanship slows many popular ideas, animal issues can unite us and remind us of our shared values. In addition to the PAWS Act, Congress also passed the Dog and Cat Meat Trade Prohibition Act to prevent dogs and cats from being slaughtered for human consumption in the U.S. and the Parity in Animal Cruelty Enforcement to restrict animal fighting in the U.S. Territories. Lawmakers jettisoned the dangerous King Amendment that would have upended state agriculture and animal protection laws. This might very well be the high-water-mark for recent Farm bills when it comes to animal welfare. It shows that determined and focused action, led by Animal Wellness Action, can produce some outstanding outcomes for animals.