One of Kansas City’s main domestic violence agencies opened a new shelter this month. But not for women.
Rose Brooks now has an onsite pet shelter, making it the first agency in the region and one of just a few dozen nationwide to have a place for domestic violence victims’ pets. For some women, the new resource may mean the difference between seeking safety and continuing to live in danger. That was the case for "McKenzie" and "Hank," the duo who inspired the new shelter.
Imagine a small pony. That is about the size of Hank. A four foot two, 150 pound, all black Great Dane.
“He is my baby in every sense of the word,” says McKenzie, who’s not using her real name for safety reasons. “He is my everything.”
McKenzie and Hank stop in at Rose Brooks, a domestic violence shelter in Kansas City. It’s a place they’ve been to before. Not too long ago, McKenzie says she was in trouble, and didn’t see it coming.
A Dangerous Situation
“You know there are signs to abuse,” says McKenzie. “They’ll start to call you names, and they’ll start to isolate you from your family, and I didn’t get any of that.”
But three months into her relationship and less than a month after she and her boyfriend moved in together, everything changed.
“My abuser was hell bent on killing me that night,” says McKenzie. “If Hank hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t be here.”
Her boyfriend just snapped.
“He put me through the nearest wall, and I went through the wall,” says McKenzie. “You don’t feel anything. You don’t.”
A Heroic Act
McKenzie’s boyfriend proceeded to beat her with a hammer. Well, he tried to. Hank came and laid on top of her. He shielded her from harm.
“A roofing hammer did not hit me in my ribs,” McKenzie recalls. “He laid on top of me, and I was not hit in the head. He laid on top of me, and my hips my were not broken. He endured everything so that I would not.”
McKenzie managed to escape. She later returned with police, and found Hank bruised and unable to walk.
A Roadblock To Safety
Police then brought the two of them to Rose Brooks. There was just one problem. The shelter, like others, didn’t take pets.
“We wish that we could have taken dogs for the last 30 years of being here, but when it came down to it, we just didn’t have the resources,” says Sarah North, communications director at Rose Brooks. “We didn’t have the time, we didn’t have the staff.”
North says an improved police referral system and a down economy, which can make domestic violence situations worse, had the shelter focused on more and more women and children who were turning to them.
“Getting into pets is a whole different world than what we do,” says North.
But McKenzie wasn’t going to part with Hank.
“I said I have to have him,” she recalls. “We have to be together. I’m not ever going to leave him.”
A Common Target For Abuse, Control
McKenzie’s dilemma is not that unusual.
Allie Phillips is director of the National Center for the Prosecution of Animal Abuse and also helps domestic violence shelters set up options for victims’ pets.
“There are women who will not come forward or report abuse because they know local shelter will not take their pets,” says Phillips.
Phillips, a former prosecutor, says it’s a problem across the country, especially because pets and livestock can be an effective target by abusers who want to control their victims.
“What a better way to get silence and compliance from an adult or child victim than to say ‘if you tell anybody or if you struggle, I’m going to kill the dog, or I’m going to kill the cat.’ And it’s that power or targeting the pet that maintains the power and terror of abuse over victims,” says Phillips. “And so these victims are terrified to leave or to speak out, and they’re trapped.”
Phillips says of the more than 2500 domestic violence shelters across the country, she’s aware of about 70 that now have some sort of pet program, whether that be a few kennels inside a shelter, or an arrangement with area animal groups to help foster the pets.
An Unusual Exception
Back at Rose Brooks, when McKenzie arrived that night, she was serious about not leaving Hank.
“I said, I’m just going to go to a rest stop. We’re just going to get out of town,” she recalls telling a staff member. “And she said, ‘You’re going to a rest stop?’ ‘Well yeah, you don’t take dogs, I’m leaving.’ She said, ‘You can’t leave, your life is in danger.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s fine. But we’re going to leave.”
The staff member made some phone calls. The shelter made an exception for them.
North says Rose Brooks had never accommodated a pet before. Hank, too large and too injured to be in a kennel, stayed in an unused handicapped bathroom in the basement. But as his health improved, he started making his way around the shelter.
“People who aren’t dog people became dog people,” says McKenzie. “Everyone here loved him back together.”
“When McKenzie was referring to people who aren’t dog people who love Hank, she was referring to me,” says North.
North says it took some adjusting at the shelter. Hank is big. Not everyone was comfortable with him. But overall, it was good having him there.
“Immediately we saw the therapeutic benefits not only to her, but to residents, and to the rest of the staff,” says North.
A Long-term Solution
After the shelter had made an exception for McKenzie and Hank, they started taking in some other victims’ pets.
Staff got in touch with area animal organizations for back-up support. Then, when the shelter started moving forward with a big expansion of its family wing, they decided to add on plans for this onsite pet shelter.
Earlier this month, Rose Brooks’ director, Susan Miller, announced the opening of Paws Place. It’s a beige barn-like structure near the main shelter that has room for eight pets.
“As of this afternoon, all of our kennels will be full,” Miller told a crowd of supporters from the community, Humane Society, and other animal organizations who came out to celebrate the shelter’s grand opening.
The agency believes it's now the second domestic violence shelter nationwide to have a stand-alone, on-site pet shelter.
McKenzie, a featured guest at the opening (with Hank), says she’s thrilled.
“The fact that they acknowledged that this is a need and were able to fulfill that need is humbling,” she says. “It’s exciting, and it’s a great honor.”
Especially, she says, knowing that what was a horrific, terrible experience for he and Hank now means other women will face less barriers in seeking safety.
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