The majority of Australians consider companion animals to be members of their family and for women experiencing Family and Domestic Violence (FDV), pets are a significant source of therapeutic support. According to the RSPCA, one in three women delay leaving situations of FDV due to concerns about leaving their beloved pets behind. This is exacerbated by the fact that most refuges or crisis accommodation options will not house companion animals. Research by veterinary pathologist Dr Lydia Tong found that when leaving with their animals, 92% of Australian women were turned away from refuges.
There is widespread evidence that perpetrators of FDV exploit companion animals as tools of manipulation and coercion, often simultaneously to other methods of coercive control including limiting access to finances and monitoring of phone calls. In up to 53% of Victorian FDV cases, women have reported threatened or deliberate abuse to an animal. Children in violent homes may also witness and subsequently commit animal abuse themselves, leading to continuing cycles of abuse. There are long-lasting impacts on animals who have either witnessed or experienced violence, with trauma symptoms evident well beyond them or their human companions having left the violent home.
By protecting animals in situations of family violence, we remove one of the biggest barriers to escaping violent home. Early intervention is key in protecting people from FDV. It is therefore pertinent that animals are protected under the Family Violence Protection Act 2008 for better and safer outcomes. Similarly, family violence intervention orders (FVIOs) and personal safety intervention orders (PSIOs) should recognise companion animals as vulnerable and affected family members - mirroring the treatment and consideration of children.
17th Oct 2023 - Motion - Family Violence & Animal Welfare
That this house notes that:
(1) companion animal abuse is a form of family and domestic violence (FDV);
(2) studies show women with companion animals have reported threatened or deliberate animal abuse in up to 53 per cent of FDV situations;
(3) concern for the welfare of companion animals is a significant contributor to women and children remaining in violent homes;
(4) the property status of animals under the current legislation makes it easy for perpetrators to acquire and maintain ownership of pets for use in coercive control;
(5) emerging research shows clear links between animal cruelty and the increased likelihood of violence against humans;
(6) in 2020 the government supported a motion to better protect companion animals and victim-survivors in situations of FDV;
and calls on the government to investigate amending the Family Violence Protection Act 2008 to include a specific offence for cruelty to animals as a form of early intervention and to further investigate the link between violence towards animals and humans in order to make appropriate reforms.
18th Oct 2023 - Watch her full 13 min speech
18th Oct 2023 - Read the transcript of Georgie's speech
As we have all heard here just this morning in everyone’s wonderful contributions about Sprite, it is not news that we Victorians consider our companion animals to be family, evidenced by the many dogs in my own office and the many that walk the hallways in this place too. We simply cannot leave them at home for long periods of time, just as we would not with a human child. There is currently a movement for dogs to be allowed in pubs with the rest of our family and friends and, as I mentioned last week, an increase in pet-friendly hotels.
For a growing number of us, including me, choosing not to have human children is becoming more and more normalised, because we already have kids – they just happen to walk on four legs. In fact in my case I consider dogs, cats, equines, ovines and bovines all part of my family at home, and after being an MP for less than a year, I know too that this is true for many of my constituents. In turn they want to see them better protected. So when considering the RSPCA statistic that one in three women delay leaving family violence situations due to legitimate fear of harm to their companion animals, I am alarmed, and it is my hope today that we can change this. An Australian study has revealed over half of women in violent relationships reported their partner had threatened to hurt or deliberately kill a family pet. Perpetrators are exploiting companion animals as tools of manipulation and for coercion, often simultaneously to other methods of coercive control, including limiting access to finances and monitoring of phone calls.
We owe it to animals to do our best for them every single day, and that means responding rapidly when information about cruelty and violence surfaces, and it means reforming laws that are no longer strong or fit for purpose when research and evidence like this emerge. But this is not just about protecting pets today, it is about early intervention to protect people too. It is for the safety of animals and for the safety of women and children, and that is why we must act now.
While I commend the government for listening and for working towards family violence reforms, particularly since the royal commission in Victoria, this motion outlines the more complex work that must be done in this space. If we are serious about ending family violence in Victoria, we must understand what experts have called ‘the link’. As the Animal Legal Defense Fund has stated:
People who hurt animals don’t stop with animals. There is an established link between cruelty to animals and violence toward humans – regularly referred to as “The Link.”
This link makes it critically important that cruelty toward animals be taken seriously by law enforcement, and by society at large.
This will result in better outcomes for women and animals – safer outcomes. The Victorian government has acknowledged the link in the past and in 2021, following calls from the Animal Justice Party, committed to $1.3 million to protect companion animals from family violence when this house unanimously passed another motion on this very topic. While there have been investment in pet-friendly crisis accommodation and other upgrades since then, there still has not been legislative protection for pets put into our family violence act in this state. It means we have only acted to protect pets and people after violence has occurred, rather than acting to stop it at its source with a method of early intervention.
It is time today in this place for the Allan government to commit to changing that, just as New South Wales did years ago. It is crucial because research points unequivocally to the link between animal abuse and family violence. Animal cruelty occurs more frequently where family violence is also occurring, and we cannot deny that any further: 76 per cent of animal abusers also abuse a family member, 70 per cent of animal abusers have criminal records and more than 50 per cent of schoolyard shooters have histories of animal cruelty, according to many US studies.
If the animals in our homes are not safe, then it is more than likely that neither are the people.
In 2021 the ABC published the story of Jennifer Howard, who like many women experiencing family and domestic violence, was unable to leave because there were no housing options to take her dogs, leaving her stuck with a man who physically and mentally abused her. Eventually the situation became too dangerous and she escaped with her children but was forced to leave her dogs behind. Jennifer went on to establish the widely regarded not-for-profit organisation Safe Pets Safe Families, which provides emergency services for people and their pets fleeing FDV in South Australia. The tireless work of family violence prevention groups in Victoria includes Pets of the Homeless, Safe Steps and Lucy’s Project, and it is astounding to see the work that they have done. It is unfortunate that situations like Jennifer’s are not unique and that charities are born out of human and animal suffering that could have already been improved with a simple legislative change.
On Monday just passed I posted my intention of introducing and debating this motion today on my social media. In the following hours I was flooded with messages from women wanting to share their own personal experience with family and domestic violence and how their defenceless companion animals were also abused and used against them in acts of coercive control. I would like to now tell two of those stories that have been shared with me by brave and resilient women – with their full consent – who, thankfully, made it out of their violent homes alive.
[QUOTE AWAITING VERIFICATION]
When I was 18, I experienced my first encounter with domestic violence. My boyfriend at the time became physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive, but I didn’t initially recognize the signs. Our relationship progressed rapidly, and he convinced me to move to a different state with him for a job opportunity. Against my better judgment, we also acquired two 9-week-old kittens, even though our rental didn’t permit pets. Looking back, I understand that this was a tactic used by him to manipulate and to control me.
A few weeks later, I managed to escape from him, but I couldn’t take the kittens with me as I fled for my life. He had already destroyed all my belongings.
He attempted to manipulate me into returning by saying that I’d be homeless because we had obtained the kittens without informing the real estate.
He sent self-harming messages to me and my new employer as a means to guilt-trip me for leaving him and it demonstrated that any efforts to collect my kittens would be futile. When I didn’t respond, he continued to message me, telling me that he had drowned the kittens.
A few days later, I returned to the property and found our kittens in the shed, without food or water, in the freezing winter cold. Fortunately, I was able to secure accommodation in a local women’s shelter, as I had finally sought help from the police. At the time, the RSPCA provided crisis accommodation for my kittens. Even with this support, I –
faced numerous challenges.
[QUOTE AWAITING VERIFICATION]
In my recent marriage, there was a history of domestic violence, and we had two dogs, who meant a lot to both me and my young daughter. However, my husband was cruel and neglectful towards the dogs. He seemed to view them as an extension of his ego rather than as beloved pets.
As I planned to leave due to ongoing abuse, I had to come to terms with the possibility of leaving the dogs behind if I sought shelter or a rental for myself and my child. When my husband found out I left, he threatening to dump the dogs, claiming he couldn’t handle them on his own. I tried to arrange temporary housing for the dogs while I looked for a pet-friendly rental, but he changed his stance and then denied me access to them. He used every negotiation as a tool to manipulate me into returning and instill fear and urgency in me.
I lived in constant fear that he would harm the dogs or himself (as he had in the past) in retaliation for my departure. On one occasion, he deliberately let the dogs loose, causing them to create issues on a neighbouring farm and attack livestock. He threatened that debt collectors would come after me if I didn’t pay the fine.
I want to thank these brave women for sharing these experiences with me for me to share with you all today, but I also must say that these experiences are not unique and highlight the urgent need for coercive control involving animals to be recognised and for assistance to help victims temporarily house their pets while escaping life-threatening situations.
If this motion is passed today, and I sincerely hope it is, Victoria will be only the second state after New South Wales to acknowledge the importance of the protection of animals for women’s and children’s safety. By comparison, more than two-thirds of US states have enacted legislation that includes provisions for pets in domestic violence protection orders. By protecting animals in situations of family violence, we remove one of the biggest barriers to escaping a violent home. This is early intervention. But there is still so much more work to be done. Early intervention is key in protecting people from family and domestic violence. It is therefore pertinent that animals are protected under the Family Violence Protection Act 2008 for better and safer outcomes for both women and animals. I hope that the government can commit to these increased protections for women, children and animals today. I look forward to support from colleagues across the political spectrum and the entire chamber to do not only what is right by animals, women and children but what is expected by the majority of our society, and I commend the motion to the house.