One night while Margaret Bushinger worked the overnight shift at Anna Marie’s Shelter for battered women and their kids, St. Cloud cops brought in a family that had just run away from an abusive father. The little boy was crying. He wanted to go home, he said, because his dad was going to get mad and kill the dog.
“I was heartbroken,” Bushinger recalls. “At the time I had a little boy about the same age, whom I gave a German Shepard puppy to for Christmas, and I just thought, ‘Oh my God.’”
That was when the domestic violence advocate recruited some volunteer families to take in the pets of clients who came to Anna Marie. It wasn’t a perfect system. The volunteers’ addresses were kept strictly confidential to deter stalking by abusers, but that also meant the victims would see their pets only if the foster families had time to bring them to the shelter.
What Bushinger wanted was an on-site kennel, which would keep families as whole as possible.
About 10 years after Anna Marie started up its pet fostering program, PetSmart caught wind. The company decided to sponsor construction of a pet shelter about the size of a two-car garage across the parking lot from Anna Marie’s main building. Members of the Central Minnesota Builders Association volunteered the labor.
The final product is something like a pet apartment. Through the front door is a large play area with benches placed against the walls, a utility sink for baths, a TV and Wi-Fi for the women and children to use while they spend time with their pets. There’s a separate cat room with cat condos and three individual dog kennels that lead out to a fenced backyard.
It’s Minnesota’s first on-site shelter for the pets of domestic violence victims. Seventy-one percent of battered women report that their abusers had also attacked or threatened the family pet, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
“One comment I heard a lot when I took in donations was they’d never thought about it, what happens to an animal that lives in a domestic violence home,” Bushinger says. She started her own questionnaire for the pet-owning women of Anna Marie and found that nine out of 10 animals had gotten kicked, held over a balcony, locked outside in the cold, or otherwise used to keep the women hostage in their relationships.
Since the pet shelter opened, there’s been a marked improvement in the clients’ mental health, Bushinger says. The children have another outlet to show love and compassion. The animals provide the women with a therapeutic comfort.
“I didn’t realize the impact it was going to have on the women. When the first few came in with cats, I was just thinking about whether I had supplies for them, and they all just pretty much cried to be able to keep their animals.”