Some of the most vulnerable Loudouners get around on four legs, and the county Department of Animal Services goes the extra mile to help them out.
Not everyone would lump animal control officers with child protective services or social services case workers, but in Loudoun, they serve an unsung role in offering abuse victims help and a way out. They have undergone the same crisis intervention training much celebrated in Loudoun’s Sheriff’s Office, and when they respond to animal complaints, they’re looking for other signs of trouble.
After all, said Deputy Chief of Field Services Angela Chan, domestic abuse and animal abuse often go hand-in-hand.
“If we can identify that there is a need for adult protective services, child protective services, mental health services, then we can make appropriate referrals,” Chan said. “Whether that is providing information for the person that we’re working with, or making contact with those agencies after the fact, we work very hard to coordinate to make sure that wherever there is a need, the person and the animal is best served.”
Loudoun’s Department of Animal Services is a member of the county’s domestic abuse response team, which is a response modelthat is slowly spreading across the country. Animal Services Director Nina Stively said there is a link between violence against animals and violence against people.
“One of the biggest reasons that an abuse victim will stay with her abuser is because of the concern that the abuser will then focus their abuse on the pets, and pets are often used as a tool to manipulate the victim to keep them in the home,” Stively said.
And that has made the department an important partner to organizations like the Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter, said Executive Director Judy Hanley.
“Domestic violence is an issue of power and control, and so anything that the survivor cares about is often used against them, whether it’s children or animals,” Hanley said. “A lot of times, people don’t leave domestic violence situations because of their children, but also they don’t leave because of the animals.” Domestic violence victims worry if they leave, their abuser will take it out on their pets.
But Loudoun County Animal Services provides a safe place to bring those animals when it’s time to get out.
“We have an agreement with Loudoun County Animal Services that if a victim is not leaving an abuser because they’re afraid for their pet’s safety, or the abuser won’t let them take their pet with them, then we are able to place them at the animal services shelter, and they’ll have them as long as we have the people in shelter,” Hanley said.
Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter Child Advocacy Center Director Chris Brosan exemplifies that partnership. He has a background in training law enforcement to recognize signs of animal abuse, and soon he’ll be moving from the Child Advocacy Center to take over as the chief of field services at the Department of Animal Services.
“I think probably one of the biggest things to look for and to understand is that polyvictimization exists,” Brosan said, referring to having experienced more than one type of victimization, such as sexual abuse, physical abuse, bullying, and exposure to family violence. “And that can’t exclude animals. So, if someone’s in a household for child neglect and there’s children there that are not being fed properly, and there are pets in that house, it goes without saying that that’s probably happening to those pets as well.”
He said pets have an important role in societal and community safety that law enforcement officers of all kinds have to recognize.
“When 48 percent of women will not leave a domestic violence situation for fear that their pet may be injured, if you don’t take that into consideration, you’re in essence enabling that to happen,” Brosan said.
Today, the Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter doesn’t have capacity to keep pets as well, so they stay with the Department of Animal Services temporarily, with names changed to protect victims. But Hanley said they’re working toward it.
Finding a New Friend
Loudoun’s adoption shelter—which, with its active social media presence and magazine-like glamour shots of shelter animals, has more than 12,000 followers on Facebook—also goes above and beyond the stereotype.
Some shelters struggle to get pets into families and have to put many down. But if you see a dog or a cat that catches your eye at Loudoun’s shelter, move fast—in general, Stively said, once a dog or a cat is ready for adoption, they are settling in new homes within a week. 93 percent of shelter animals in Loudoun leave alive. In fact, Loudoun’s animal shelter takes in more than 300 animals a year from other shelters.
Some of that survival rate comes from a creative approach to animal health, like a “kitty candy stripers” program that is all about spending time interacting with sick cats.
“What we found with that is the cats were just not getting better, so we decided to outfit a small army of volunteers with caps and gowns and gloves, and their entire job was to spend time with the cats and kittens,” Stively said. “As a result, we found that our treatment costs dropped dramatically, because the cats were getting healthy faster.”
Before that program, she said, in its worst month, the shelter saw only about 44 percent of cats leaving the shelter alive. Now, she said, upwards of 90 percent of cats leave the shelter alive. And Stively said those volunteers play a big role in that change.
“We dedicate a lot of time to mental enrichment of the animals, it’s critical,” Stively said. “A lot of facilities do not treat mental health the way they do physical health for an animal in a shelter, and I think that is borderline inhumane.”
Loudoun’s animal services also provide licensing and microchipping of dogs, which Stively said has given Loudoun dogs a much better chance of finding their way home.
“I came from a jurisdiction where less than 2 percent of the dogs in our community had dog licenses, and when dogs got lost maybe 5 to 10 percent of them found their way back home, because no one knew who those dogs belonged to,” Stively said. In Loudoun, with near-ubiquitous dog licensing and a database of dog license addresses, 83 percent of dogs who wander away find their way back home.
To find out more about Loudoun County Animal Services—or to find a new pet—visit loudoun.gov/animals.