A man threatens the family pet Stock / Adobe
When abusers torture women through cruelty to pets

When abusers torture women through cruelty to pets

Cases of gender-based violence in Spain where the man punishes the woman through violence against the family pet are increasingly becoming a concern in Spain

Doménico Chiappe


Tuesday, 23 April 2024, 15:23


The Pomeranian started barking when its owner was being assaulted by her partner. "That's all I needed, the dog too, I've had enough," said the man who started kicking and hitting the two-kilo animal. She asked him to leave her pet alone, but he picked the dog up and threw it against the wall. With the dog stunned, the man then carried it to the bathroom, put it inside a rubbish bag and filled it with water.

The woman pleaded and was able to retrieve her furry companion of ten years and take it to the dining room to calm it down and check its wounds. But the man, described in a Barcelona provincial court ruling as "corpulent", lunged at her. He snatched the dog from her hands and threw it with all his might against the floor. The impact was so vicious, it broke the dog's spine.

A third of women who suffer gender violence have a pet, according to data from the ministry of social rights, and this case, solved four months ago, is one of many in which animal cruelty is intertwined with domestic violence.

On that occasion, the complainant said in her testimony her pet shrieked in pain and tried to walk, but without succeeding. Despite her fear, she helped the dog and called the vet. He took them to the emergency clinic and she said that the Pomeranian had fallen down the stairs. After examination and x-rays, the vet did not believe the story. In his report he made it clear: the severe spinal trauma was the result of a beating. The animal had to be put down.

Until recently, this type of attack was invisible to the law. "With the reform of the penal code, sentences are beginning to be handed down in cases of gender violence involving cruelty to animals, which previously were not even investigated even if the victim reported that she lived with a pet," said Núria Querol, president of the animal cruelty watchdog and researcher in criminal behaviour at the University of Barcelona. "It is extraordinary suffering for the woman and, if there are children, also for them. It is also a risk factor that we assess, like the possession of weapons, aggression against previous partners or alcohol consumption," she added.

On that day, the woman also had signs on her body she had been beaten, such as her face, arms, legs and back, according to the report that underpinned the complaint. It was not the first time she had suffered such abuse but she only dared to break the silence following the agony of her dog.

"The accused allegedly carried out a situation of physical and psychological abuse towards the complainant, who recently suffered the death of her animal caused by her partner," the court ruled. This loss "has a high emotional component" and had a single objective: "to attack her moral integrity and peace of mind".

In a context of violence against women, animal cruelty has different forms. This year, for example, a man slit the throat of his partner's pet white rabbit, cooked it and served it. He had forced her to hold the animal by the legs while he cut its throat and tried to make her eat it, and threatened to stab her if she didn't. The incident happened in Valencia in February. A month later in Malaga, another man beat the family dog to death while attacking his ex-partner. But fatal outcomes are only the "tip of the iceberg", according to those interviewed.

Proving the harm to the animal, so that a judge has no doubts about the veracity of the accusation, is a thankless task. "We win 25% and 75% of the complaints are shelved," said Alfon Bañeres, founder and president of the Navarre-based Asociación Veterinaria Basati, based on the experience in the past two decades. The expert has prepared many sensitive reports, with photographs of the autopsies.

Beatings and shouting

Among the documentation that reached the judge, for example, is one that pointed out the death of a cat, which was apparently healthy. First, an external inspection was carried out and only a "recent fracture of a tooth" was noticed. However, "animals do not get bruises, they are mute victims", said Bañeres, author of the report. "The blows are not always obvious, as one might think. They can go unnoticed." So the next step is to "open up the corpse". It is then the cause of death is revealed: haemorrhage in "the whole abdomen" and both kidneys "traumatically detached". The blows also formed clots in the "rib walls" and lungs. The "extremely painful" death was due to "intentional and repeated aggression" over a long period of time.

In a study pertaining to demostic violence cases, it was found that within households where pets were assaulted, 90% of the victims were women who suffered physical and psychological abuse, exacerbated by the harm to their animals. This "coexistence of interpersonal violence and animal abuse" in a context of gender violence (in which the aggressor is the partner of the animal's owner) occurs in eight out of ten of the cases analysed, according to the study.

"The repertoire for harming women through their pets is very broad," pointed out Querol, author of the research presented at the Annual Convention of the American Society of Criminology (United States). "From passive situations, such as not giving food or shelter, to forcing the owner to watch situations of sexual violence towards the animal. Victims feel that they have not been able to do anything to help them."

The most frequent offences are beatings (57%) and screams that terrify the animal (66%), which can result in abandonment in one in four cases or death in one in five, caused by suffocation, drowning or shooting, in addition to beatings, according to Querol. If the pet remains in the home, it can develop phobias and aggression.

Emotional prison

Affection for the pet can also serve to confine the woman even more, preventing her from leaving the cycle of violence. "Animals cease to be living beings and become a tool of abuse for the aggressor, which further complicates the situation for the victim," said Eloi Sarrió, a lawyer and criminologist who runs Aboganimal. "She may have additional difficulties in taking the step of leaving the house or seeking help, due to her legitimate fear for the safety of her animal companion. The dog or cat, which she adores, is a fundamental part of her family, and her partner threatens to stop feeding it, not take it to the vet, put it in the microwave or washing machine, cook and eat it, abandon it, give it to someone else or kill it in the most horrible way possible. All to get him to do certain things or not to abandon him.

For example, when a woman with two pets, the dog Danko and the cat Nala, fled the house where the man was threatening her, leaving her two animals there. Her partner said he would throw Nala out of the window if she did not return. He threw Danko out into the street, according to the Supreme Court ruling on this case in Catalonia. Victims with this deep attachment are "above all people without any family in Spain, who only have the animal", Bañeres pointed out. "They can't leave it with the abuser because they would be violent against their pet."

In the "majority of shelters and emergency services" pets are not allowed, said the ministry of social rights, which has created VioPet to "manage safe spaces" for animals so victims of gender-based violence can take the step of freeing themselves. In its first year, it attended to 300 women and now has a network of 800 safe places. In order to take refuge there, it is not necessary to denounce the partner.

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