The second day of the conference fell on December 6th, the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women that marks the massacre in 1989 that resulted in 14 young women being shot in an act of gender-based violence at l’École Polytechnique de Montréal. Taken right from the Canadian official Status of Women Canada’s website, “they died because they were women”.I recall when I first learned about this in my undergrad studies, that it took many, many years for this violence to be recognized as an extreme act of violence verses a “mentally ill” man. I wonder how those men that left the classroom that day when he divided the class feel to this day. They complied.
After emotional words were shared and a few comments arouse from the audience such as a women who said a room she was in with a bunch of women on that day was aggressively pranked by men on her campus who locked the doors shut with shackles.
As coffee was gulped down, and we all sat tenderly, the days plenary began. Our first speaker of the day was Dr. Michelle Lem, who may very well be one of the most hilarious, compassionate, kind, generous woman there ever was. Her presentation was “Connecting our collective vulnerability and the human-animal bond”. Dr. Lem has an impressive array of letters following her name and is the founder of Community Veterinary Outreach. Her methodology in all that she does circles around the idea of “One Health” meaning that the coming together of animals, humans, and environment must be at the fore of any care practice. This model articles that 50% of our health in Canada is determined by our life: which for the most part is beyond our control such as the social locations we are born in. This took her down the pathway to consider how structural violence (which includes speciesism in the 1969 definition!) and its companion, symbolic violence facilitate and create the conditions for violence experienced in the “everydayness”. She brought it all together to share her story about how she arrived at the Community Veterinary Outreach project that works with street folks, as at least 20% of homeless folks in Canada have a companion animal and research has shown that having this furry companion often leads for them to make better decisions. I saw this play out in my own research with a participant who was homeless and struggles with mental health, generational trauma, and addiction work through their crack addiction through supplant it with marijauna and his need to be attentive and present for his two pitbull-type dogs. I was really estatic through her presentation and it was probably the most emotionally charged presentation for me as she is a veterinarian and actually cares about animals in a really profound, radical way. Part of her research is included in a book entitled “Men and Their Dogs: A New Understanding of Man’s Best Friend” edited by Blazina, c. & Kogan, L. I am really excited to read through this as it brings together vulnerable male populations, masculinity studies and animal studies all together. Happy that Concordia too has an e-book version!
Following Dr. Lem was Dr. Amy Fitzgerald, a scholar I am familiar with having read her work on green criminology and prison farms and domestic violence. I was fan girl-ing. I sat at a table with her the day before but was far too nervous to introduce myself. If I want to continue in academia I really ought to work on this. Anyways, her presentation was called “Understanding and mitigation the unique barriers to leaving an abusive relationship faced by women with companion animals”. Her presentation included soon too be published data gathered through a project entitled Animal & Interpersonal Abuse Research Group at Windsor University in Ontario. Just going to flag some of the most important numbers and findings she shared with us, that quiet frankly, gutted me. This is the presentation I had been most nervous and eager for- to provide me and the conference some sort of numerical proof that our conversations were important, real and systematic. The survey included 40 shelters across Canada with women who have experienced intimate partner violence and had companion animals. Even though we know, but here are some hard numbers to swallow:
-89% of women who have experienced frequent intimate-partner violence involved in the across-Canada survey stated their partners abused their companion animals
-56% of women who have experienced frequent intimate-partner violence delayed leaving their situation because of shelters that are not friendly to animals
-47% said they would have left earlier if they could safely take their animal out of that situation
Further questions of women in the shelter noted that:
-48% of women not advised that the shelter did have some sort of accomodadation and once in shelter, 25% were told in shelter and felt a sense of betrayal from not being informed of this possibility
-60% left their animals with their abuser
-1/3 considered returning to their abuser to be with / retrieve their animal
Playing back these short, sharp numbers in my head hurts. It hurts more to think of how this survey was so small yet so suggestive and also that this survey only reaches those womxn who made contact with a shelter. How many womxn not access shelter and have these same experiences? What happens with them? This was my mom. I think of my mom, and my father’s mother. Those two womxn lost animals by his hands to find his hands making similar markings on their flesh. My heart is motivated by this knowledge, even though I knew it without having to have formal education on the subject. But to make things carry matter, to carry weight, statistics and hard data such as this invaluable resource Dr. Fitzgerald is providing us is necessary. Her plan is to pursue this research more, to look beyond the shelter space, to generate resources shelters/feminist services can use and most importantly after doing a survey of shelter websites, advocate for websites to improve transparency in mentioning companion animals and potential resources. She stated this to be one of the easiest, cheapest and impactful moves shelters can make at this time.
Another number to throw your way, after Dr. Fitzgerald reviewed 337 shelter websites she found: 155 mentioned companion animals, 4 said yes to making pets work, 3 had qualifiers such as size/breed. Moreover, having reviewed how the shelter websites talked about companion animals she realized many talk about violence towards pets as a form of property destruction. This connotes that the womxn’s concern for their animals is silly, and minimized and thus transformed into a non-issue. When speaking of this abuse we have to do a double-move. That is to recognize animals as not property, inanimate objects and see them as animate, sentient beings with their own interests and secondly, that the relationship between humans and animals is an unquestioned bond. The mandate of shelters and feminist resources is to keep families together and create a sense of continuity, so why not include our multispecies families?
Next we moved into a conversation between Dayna Desmarais of PetSafe Ottawa and Kia Rainbow the executive director at Interval House of Ottawa. These two remarkable womxn are doing the practical praxis to what Dr. Fitzgerald shared in her presentation. Both of these women, and Dr. Lem are based in Ottawa and made me realize how resource-strong Ottawa is in relation to the HAV-link. Probably moreso than anywhere else in Canada. Together they have foregrounded a working relationship to provide resources for womxn entering the shelter space to have foster programs available, and now, have begun the initiative to build in-house animal housing within the shelter itself. This became an urgent project after a few years of collaboration, and an intake questions exposure that 45-65% of the womxn accessing the shelter space had an animal(s). I am really exciting to follow their story as they became one of the most equip shelters in Canada and thus knowledge producers of the HAV-link in Canada.
Next we moved into Julia LaLonde from the Draw-The-Line campaign based in Ontario that focuses on the by-stander effect. Her presentation was called “Beyond Awareness: Tools for supporting Sexual Assault Survivors”. LaLonde delivered her information with a great splattering of feminist humour. How else can you talk about 1/3 women in Canada will experienced sexual assault? She shared a personal story about how she was stalked for over a decade and her cat, along with friends and family supported her. I think what transpired most powerfully from her presentation was how to be a solid supporter. And that involves creating conditions for someone to trust you. It is all about creating the conditions for things to continue, for things to stop, for being to be able to find relationality. Conditions are what keep everything in place or allow for things to be moved out of place, into most likely, safer, more live-giving spaces. Conditions- what an important focal point of anyones activism.
Ok ok ok, after all of this radical feminist speech and knowledge-sharing came Carl Sesely, a Geographic Profiler for the RCMP- one of a handful in Canada, trained by the FBI in the USA. Why he had the final word beats me. He made me uncomfortable. He spoke of all abuse coming from a place of sex drive, he pathologized a lot of the behaviours and lifestyle choices myself and friends make and quite honestly provided little substance to the conference. He presented animal abuse as an indicator, or signal of potential for future abuse. The use of animal violence as an initial act of criminality saturated the conference in an uncomfortable way as it often detracted from talking about how the animals experience abuse which was only entertained briefly by Dr. Ascione to think of it. I think his presence represented a fear I have of doing this kind of work, especially that of social work. I feel uncomfortable supporting the prison industrial complex and relying on its agents that hand out punishments, sentences. How can you be a proper anti-racist if you allow for this industry to flourish in some regards? I wondered who may have not attended the conference because of the heavy presence and space allocated for the police? Is this just a thing I have to accept, get over and or learn to navigate better? I don’t know how we can liberate animals from cages and enclosures and in the same breath continue the flow of human bodies into similar constructs. I wish he did not have the final time slot, I wish he did not close the conference with his rather unthoughtful and clearly not well-planned talk.
After this uncomfortable 80 minutes or so of quite frankly I-have-no-idea-what-he-was-getting-at we moved into our final and most important network activity. Those of us who remained divided ourselves into 10 tables to talk about the most pressing 10 issues that were collectively brought to the stage over the course of the two-day conference. I was only able to participate for about 20 minutes in this session as I had to leave to catch the train, but am looking forward to working with that group in the future on a website platform that serves as a resource hub for folks across Canada working with womxn, working with animals and other marginalized folks.
I am very grateful to have been a participant in what was the first formal step in Canada to see the link it and to move forward with what resources, relationships, and research is required to continue the conversation about the connections between violence against womxn, vulnerable folks and animals.