In the winter of 2004 and 2005, Yvonne Stromer was trying to leave her abusive husband. But the San Diego resident knew he had an important bargaining chip: her beagle, Baby, who he repeatedly threatened to “get rid of” if Stromer left him.
“If I’d had the ability to protect my dog sooner, I think I would have left sooner,” Stromer said.
A couple years later, her ex-husband is in prison for an unrelated charge, Baby is safe and Stromer is advocating a bill that might have given her some peace of mind. SB 353 from Senator Sheila Kuehl, D-Los Angeles, would allow people to list their pets along with other property on restraining orders.
If the bill had been in effect, Stromer said, she would not have had to go through the ordeal of moving Baby from a variety of stops, with friends and family, as she checked into domestic-violence shelters. She could have gotten a legal injunction against her husband, preventing him from harming Baby, she said.
“Restraining orders can protect cars and furniture,” Stromer said. “Why not protect something living and breathing?”
The bill was the idea of a group of graduate students at the University of San Diego. Sarah Speed, a 23-year-old law student at University of San Diego. Last year, Speed hooked up with several graduate students at the school’s Nonprofit Leadership and Management program. They took their idea to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
“Often, the animal is used to keep the person there,” said Jill Buckley, an attorney and lobbyist for the ASPCA in the Western region. “The abuser will say ‘if you leave, I’ll kill your cat.'”
Buckley said in abusive homes, animals are often hurt first in an escalating cycle of violence. In a 1997 survey, 85 percent of women in domestic-violence shelters said there had been incidents of violence against animals by their abuser, usually the household pet, according the Humane Society of the United States. The same survey also found that 63 percent of children in the shelters identified similar incidents.
Last month, Atlanta Falcons football player Jonathan Babineaux was charged with felony animal cruelty for allegedly killing his girlfriend’s pit-bull mix after an argument.
One thing SB 353 does not do, Buckley said, is give animals equivalent legal standing to people. Instead, they are merely listed as another type of property that the abuser is not allowed to approach, at the risk of being charged with contempt of court.
While hundreds of shelters and other support services have sprung up in recent years to help human victims, Buckley said, few shelters took pets. Buckley was director of the board at the Rancho Coastal Humane Society in San Diego in the late 1990s when they started the “Animal Safehouse” program to find temporary foster homes for pets of people fleeing domestic-violence situations. The Los Angeles Humane Society soon duplicated the idea.
Stromer got involved when she took Baby to Rancho Coastal, seeking foster care. Via word of mouth, she found out Buckley was seeking a spokesperson for Kuehl’s bill. In January, they hooked up and began shopping the idea to California legislators.
Buckley said that she has talked to several legislators, including Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys, the current legislator most closely identified with animal issues. Levine was already fairly loaded up with important animal bills, Buckley said. These include AB 777, his bill to punish cruelty to elephants, and AB 1634, a controversial bill that would require all cats and dogs over four months old to be spayed and neutered.
While Levine has pledged support, Kuehl ended up taking on the bill. While not well-known for animal bills, Buckley said, Kuehl has a long history with domestic-violence legislation. Last year, she successfully carried SB 720. That bill added teeth to contempt orders relating to the Domestic Violence Protection Act.
“It’s more of a domestic-violence bill than an animal-cruelty bill,” Buckley said of SB 353.
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