Speaker Spotlight: Dr. Amy Fitzgerald, PhD

Image of Dr. Amy FitzgeraldDr. Amy Fitzgerald, PhD, is an Associate Professor in Criminology and in the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor. She is also the Director of the newly formed Animal and Interpersonal Abuse Research Group. Her research focuses on the intersection of harms – criminal and otherwise – against people, animals, and the environment. Her most recent research on the co-occurrence of animal abuse and intimate partner violence has been published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Anthrozoos and Violence and Victims.CFHS: How did you get into this area of research – what was your path into it?

AF: Years ago, I was a Master’s student volunteering at an animal shelter here in Windsor, and one of my jobs was to do the paperwork when people would bring a pet in to surrender the pet. One thing that I noticed was that it was primarily women who were bringing the pets in, and a number of them explained that the reason they were giving up their pet was because their partner had either abused the pet or was threatening to abuse the pet – or to “get rid of the pet” in a way that didn’t sound all that good. So I started paying attention to that. That spurred me to think more about the relationship between how people treat their pets and how people treat their partners. When I applied to PhD studies, I decided that I wanted to specifically focus on human-animal relationships. So I looked for a PhD program where I’d be able to do that.

CFHS: So you entered your PhD and started looking at these issues. What did you find?

AF: The first study I did was an interview based study where I interviewed women who were in shelters and in support groups about their relationships and their partner’s treatment of their pets. What became clear to me in that work was that, even though it was a fairly small sample and I couldn’t make generalizations based on it, these women had really strong and profound relationships with their pets. The way they described their partner’s abuse of the pets was as a way to further abuse them. Interestingly, the women who reported that their partner hadn’t mistreated their pets also reported that they themselves weren’t attached to their pets.

CFHS: So the correlation there is pretty clear. Animal abuse as a control tactic.

AF: Yes, exactly. It seemed like, if the women had a close relationship with their pets, the animals were really at risk of being abused. Some of the women I interviewed said that their pets were the one thing that kept them from committing suicide in the context of those abusive relationships because they knew if they were gone, that something bad would probably happen to their pets.

CFHS: So that was what kept them going.

AF: Yes. After that project was done, I started thinking about how to get more generalizable data to demonstrate that this really is a pervasive problem because most of the research on this has been done in the US and, for a number of reasons, I don’t think we can extrapolate to the Canadian context. So my colleagues Betty Barrett, Rachael Shwom, and I created a survey for abused women and a survey for staff who work in shelters for abused women. I asked the staff about the co-occurrence of animal abuse and intimate partner violence and asked the women about their relationships with their pets and how their partner treated their pets. Those surveys went out to 17 shelters across Canada and indicated a really high co-occurrence of animal abuse and intimate partner violence.

CFHS: What kind of numbers are we talking?

AF: We found that 89 per cent of women who were abused reported that their partner had also mistreated their pet. We also found that it was fairly common for the women to report that they delayed leaving their partner because of their pet. It was about 56 per cent of women delayed leaving because they didn’t have somewhere they could take their pet. As I’m sure you know, most shelters don’t allow pets. I’ve only been able to find six shelters in the country that allow women to bring their pets with them.

CFHS: I would say that there’s not much awareness out there that there are any shelters that accept pets in Canada.

AF: It’s much more common in the States. I really hope it’s something that catches on here because it would help to get women, children and pets out of abusive situations much sooner.  The only reason that I know they exist is because we’re doing another project analyzing the websites of all the shelters across the country that have publicly available websites to see what information they have around animal abuse and what to do if your pet is being abused – and we’ve found a few that do say you can bring your pet with you to the shelter. Based on the research that I’ve done, it seems like that would be the ideal solution because even for shelters that have foster care programs or agreements with local humane societies or SPCAs or veterinary offices, there’s still a reluctance among some women to use the programs. I think some women are afraid they’re not going to be given their pets back. Also, they don’t want to be separated from their pet at all

CFHS: Because there’s such a strong bond.

AF: Yeah. Being able to bring them to the shelter would be the ideal solution. One other thing from the research that is really troubling to me is that it was fairly common for women to report that they had left the shelter to go home and care for their pets. And some women said they were considering reconciling with their partner because of their pet.

CFHS: When you say fairly common, what do you mean?

AF: I believe it was a third of the women in our sample who reported that, if their pet was still at home, they had gone home to check on their pet. And when we surveyed the shelter staff, there seemed to be a general acknowledgement that this is a problem. But when we asked the staff questions about how they deal with animal abuse, very few of them ask women about pets when they call in for help. So, even if they have services available, those services were not being communicated to the women who needed the information. So we recommended as a result of the research to establish more training within shelters around animal abuse, to formalize the inclusion of animal abuse in the intake questions and what is asked when a woman calls and to also consider pets as a key consideration in safety planning so that when they are ready to leave their abusive partner, they’ve already thought about what they’re going to do with their pet, what documents they need, pet medication and food – things like that. In some of the shelters, they’re just so overwhelmed with everything that’s going on, that sometime the content around pets can fall through the cracks. I think formalizing it would go long way in ensuring that more shelters are consistently raising this issue with women.

CFHS: What do you hope your research will accomplish?

AF: I hope it convinces people that they need to take animal abuse seriously and that we need better strategies for abused women with pets to leave abusive relationships. These are very close bonds, and funding needs to be allocated to address these issues. But we need the numbers. Recently, we were able to get a question about animal abuse on the Canadian General Social Survey, which goes out to a representative sample across the country and includes a module on intimate partner abuse. What I like about that is that this is the first time we’ll be able to get a representative sample on the co-occurrence of animal abuse and intimate partner violence that isn’t from women in shelters – it’s the general population.

CFHS: There are so many issues that you’ve covered in your research. What will you be talking about during your plenary presentation at the Canadian Violence Link Conference?

AF: What I’m planning to do in the presentation is to bring in all of these studies that I’ve done, synthesize the information and highlight the main findings to give people a sense of what the co-occurrence of animal abuse and intimate partner violence looks like in the Canadian context and how those findings are different than in other contexts. I plan to make some clear recommendations, too. There really are very practical things we can do to mitigate some of these problems.

To read more about the important research that Dr. Amy Fitzgerald is presenting at the CFHS Canadian Violence Link Conference in Ottawa on December 6 as part of the “Beyond the Violence Link” plenary, go here. To view the full conference program, go here.