Harbor House will be the home of Central Florida's first Pets and Women's Shelter (PAWS) Program.
Shelters that have the PAWS Program, which was created by American Humane, allow resident survivors of domestic abuse to bring their pets with them. There are only 36 shelters with a PAWS Program nationally, with two in Florida. Harbor House, in Orlando, has been working with Orange County Animal Services (OCAS) for more than a year to bring the PAWS Program to the shelter.
Statistics show that almost half of battered women delay leaving an abusive situation because they fear for their pet's safety. Harbor House gets two to three calls a week from domestic violence victims who want to leave, but can't because they don't want to leave their pets, said Carol Wick, Chief Executive Officer of the shelter.
"They know if they leave their pets behind, they'll be killed," Wick said.
Harbor House and OCAS hope to combat that through their program. The connection between domestic violence and animal abuse is real. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that nearly 1 million animals a year are abused or killed in connection with domestic violence, and up to 75 percent of domestic violence victims report that their partners threatened or killed family pets. Harbor House and OCAS want to break down the barriers between these two types of violence with the kennel, and keep the entire family together during this crisis.
"We want to preserve the family, and pets are a part of that," said Kathleen Kennedy, marketing and public relations coordinator for OCAS.
Both Wick and Kennedy have seen what separating domestic violence victims from their pets can do.
Kennedy remembers a woman and her child who had to leave their dog at the animal shelter. They both cried each time they visited the dog before it was adopted by a rescue group. Wick told a similar story.
"It's heart wrenching to see someone having their pet taken away from them when they already feel so isolated," Wick said. "When you've escaped with your life, you need pets as a part of the healing process."
That's another reason the organizations said a kennel is so important — pets provide a feeling of comfort and safety, which is vitally therapeutic for the survivor.
"It doesn't matter if you have food and shelter if you don't feel safe, and that's what these people have been missing for a long, long time," Wick said.
In addition to the kennel, OCAS will be providing a first-responder transport program. Animal Services Officers will transport the pet directly to the kennel for the survivor, and provide a check-up and vaccines. This is a first of its kind service for the PAWS Program.
Also uncommon for the program, Harbor House's kennel, which will house up to 20 pets, will be in a separate building. Many shelters only allot one room in the building for pets.
On April 20, Orange County Mayor Richard Crotty and the Board of County Commissioners awarded Harbor House with a $50,000 grant to launch their kennel construction efforts. But that's just a start. Wick said they'll need about $250,000 to complete the project. Some of that cost is being offset by volunteered work. They've already got a plumber and architect, and food and supplies will be donated as well.
Board of Directors member Ron Sachs, who's organized a lot of the project, said much of the community stepped up instantly to assist with the kennel efforts.
"People came to us and said, 'what can we do to help?'" he said. "It was very heartening."
They hope to break ground this fall.