I am writing this suspecting very few eyes will read these words so I will not shy away from excitement or the very real concerns I have. I am one of those utero babies that learned from day one about domestic violence, animal abuse and the Patriarchy. Having early exposure, and my mom telling me in my later years stories that I think about everyday, has oriented me to where I am now: an animal and womxn advocate, and more broadly an anti-violence activist. Today I eagerly attended the first Canadian national conference on the HAV-Link (human-and-violence) in Ottawa hosted by the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies. This conference spanning December 5th-6th 2017 brings together over 200 people from 10 sectors ranging from academics, prosecutors, police, social workers, animal welfare workers and more in a concerted effort to build connection and learn from each other. The conference is peppered with information sessions, structured small conversations, and very generous snacking times to network.
The HAV-Link demonstrates what ecofeminists have been stating for many decades and I am sure womxn have known since the beginning of time that violence towards womxn is connected to violence against animals. Whether it be the idea of Uptain Sinclair’s “spillover effect” or the idea that animal abuse is the first act of violence in a series as demonstrated by William Hogwarth in The 4 Stages of Cruelty. In one of the presentations today there was mention of examples from fiction literature that too documents this link, such as the story A Jury of Her Peers by Susan Glaspell (1917). This is the story of Winnie who kills her husband after years of experiencing domestic violence and his final strike against her that took the life of her companion, and seemingly only friend, a bird. In the 1800’s we saw suffragist’s starting the anti-vivisection movements in an act of binding the two struggles together against patriarchal institutions and worldviews. We have lost footing, and now we are trying to tabulate numbers and statistics to generate *new* knowledge about the links between violence experienced between people and animals. I will add that these conversations should also account for structural and sanctioned violence that is witnessed between: street folks and their animals; poor folks and their animals and indigenous and people of colour and their animals. I think plugging in these three groups of people and their relationships with animals, and the State and its agents, shifts the conversations slightly into more nuanced understandings of the HAV-Link.
The first presenter of the day, Dr. Frank Ascione essentially did a literature review of all the research supporting the HAV-Link, specifically related to domestic violence, child abuse and male abusers. He even did a study with abusers to demonstrate that the womxn and children he had interviewed were not fabricating animal abuse, as abusers were willing to admit to harming animals. I will admit that hearing him have to counter the critiques from colleagues who suggested “womxn may lie or exasperate a situation” by gathering the words of the abuser to confirm their stories established a deep, sinking feeling in my stomach. BELIEVE WOMXN FOREVER AND ALWAYS G-D DAMNIT.
He brought up so many good points, such as animal abuse being used to coerce womxn into committing crimes (as we later heard about Pif a rescue in BC); men coercing womxn into sexual assault with animals; children shifting from protectors to abusers of animals at home and so much more. I will link his presentation the moment I get access to it because it was truly a mine of information. He essentially presented a buffet of ideas as to why we should be concerned about the HAV-Link regardless of what sector or community we serve, while also maintaining that we cannot forget that the animals are also experiencing great bouts of violence and at times death. One of the first images he presented was two pictures: the first two unsupervised children systematically killing puppies with the mother dog watching in the back, and the second photo superzoomed into her facial expression and what you saw was anguish. I think after this presentation, the concern for animals as having their own important role in all of this was lost- I noticed animals once again became either indicators/flags of potential escalation of violence, as pawns for abusers or very casual lip service to them being apart of multi-species family. In fact a question for Dr. Ascione was if he is familiar with organizations that practice trauma-informed care with animals and he had an off-shoot example. However, if you take the concept of trauma-informed care you would recognize that as being the way you proceed with animals, especially animals that have experienced abuse and carry trauma that comes out in random moments, or is triggered by sights and smells we cannot predict until patterns emerge. But this requires attention and attending to. I was very excited to watch his presentation and will surely read archives of knowledge himself and colleagues have published.
The next activity was to share some thoughts about Dr. Ascione’s presentation, identify what needs to be most urgently addressed in your sector in relation to the HAV-Link and what 3 things can you commit to in order to increase cross-collaboration. My table consisted of prosecutors, social workers, a police officer and myself. We all reached deep into our knowledge bases, still working at the beginning of the conference confirming the HAV-Link and so-on. One thing we did arrive to together was the idea of having an annual national day or year-campaign that centres the HAV-Link. I am very behind that idea, I think it would generate a lot of accessibility to this research and insight. I will have to do some digging to figure out how exactly one proposes and argues for a national day.
Next was a panel that began with Tracy Porteous, the Executive Director of Ending Violence Association of BC who discussed lethal risks associated with domestic violence and how to keep women, families and companion animals safer. Tracy, a womxn who has spent many decades advocating for womxn and vulnerable people in BC had so much to share. She focused on very basic but important components of domestic violence including the safety plan. She brought up the staggering statistic that in Canada, a womxn is killed every 6 days by her ex-/partner. Moreso, in a conversation lately she was challenged to think about how just alone in BC last year- 800 womxn experienced aggravated or attempted murder by their ex-/partner. That means our 1 every 6 days does not necessarily convey the full picture.
She also stated how 88% of animals living in homes with domestic violence are harmed or killed. The safety plan if it were to include companion animals was not really fleshed out but it would include finding ways for her to care or find care for them while see seeks temporary housing, or working on policy that includes the animal(s) in orders of protection such as in some of the states in the USA. It was very profound to witness Tracy so dedicated to this building project across social movements and to see this work being done in BC. I sure hope it crosses over into the avenues of Pets Ok BC as rental housing is another barrier to womxn finding housing with companion animals.
Next in this session was a paediatrician, Dr. Michelle Ward who was appropriately alarming to this issue of children’s abuse in Canada. She spoke about the importance for all of us to report to Canadian Children’s Services whenever we suspect abuse, and how animal advocates are particularily honed in their ability to detect abuse which is true. Dr. Ward was fascinating however, one of her points which is true was buttressed by an animal that perpetuates a narrative against my favourite of dogs, pitbull-type dogs. She spoke about an indicator of child neglect including not supervising children and dogs and decided to use a photo with a pitbull-type dog and child. Does she not realize this supports a very dangerous narrative that a) pitbull’s are inherently dangerous and b) a dog that does not look like a pitbull would probably be ok to leave unsupervised with a child. Perhaps I am hyper sensitive to things that cast a potential negative shadow on pitbull-type dogs, but considering the primary sponsor of the event is Petsmart Charities and PetsSmart has breed-specific-legislation against the bully-breeds in their daycare thus confirming and establishing that it is too dangerous to socialize pitbull-type dogs.
Moving on, after eating a far too dense brownie and reading A Jury of Peers in the break, we reconvened to have a police Sargent, Tracy Porteous once again, and Marcie Moriarty the Chief Prevention and Enforcement Officer of BCSPAC talk. I enjoyed what Marcie shared about Paws on the Street in BC gets up to, especially after my dear friend Justin and his dogs Meeshka and Scottie have benefited so much from their kindness. However, it was very evident how involved the police, and the institution of justice (read protectors of white supremacy) were in this conversation. This is where I struggle. To charge someone with animal abuse and authorizing they never own/live with another animal sounds naiveness. Moreover, ever lending support to police and the State’s punishing agent seems like an act of discordance with my anti-racist position. Police are for white supremacy’s safety. I cannot affirm the police and the punishment system for a pocket of abusers and condone them for their work in other populations. This presents a major contradiction for someone like myself at a conference like this, and as someone who wants to dig her heel into social work.
I think because I am one of those people who statistics say should harm an animal, and I do not, in fact I live and breathe for them through my research, employment and most importantly my messy family of Burzum, Clementine and Eleanor I am more willing to belief in unlearning to re-learn relationships such as between people, especially abusers and animals. Because what else do we have? Lock humans up in cages?
Today has brought me great warmth and validation. I wonder what this conference would look like if we had survivors talk?
I will write back tomorrow and work on a proper resource list as I have learned about so many organizations doing great work on this connection in Canada and really do hope one day to be apart of this word in more structured ways.