Animal cruelty: What's your responsibility?

Animal cruelty: What's your responsibility?

Apr 01, 2007

Not long after Dr. Patricia Feeser bought her practice in Greenville, N.C., a client asked her to euthanize an old dog. She complied without thinking too much about it. While not the most enjoyable part of the job, the procedure was routine. A few months later, the client's wife came in with a new pet—and two black eyes.

Startled by the woman's appearance, Dr. Feeser probed for information as tactfully as she could. She learned that the old dog she'd put to sleep earlier had actually belonged to the wife, and the euthanasia had been her husband's idea of punishment. He had purchased a Pomeranian for her as a replacement, but the new dog suffered from multiple congenital disorders. Dr. Feeser did her best to treat the pet and educate the client, and soon they were on their way.

An hour later they were back, and this time the dog had two broken legs. The husband had become angry and taken out his rage on the pet—not an unusual chain of events in abusive households, as Dr. Feeser would eventually learn.

This incident motivated Dr. Feeser to start down a path she has been on ever since: investigating animal cruelty, educating people about the link between animal abuse and domestic violence, and providing resources for people who want to leave abusive situations but who fear for their pets' safety. "We've found that victims often won't leave because they know their pets will be abused if they do," she says. "The abuser uses the animal to manipulate the victim."

Providing a haven

Dr. Feeser established a program called PetSafe, modeled after a program at Purdue University that cares for the pets of domestic violence victims when they leave their abusers and enter shelters or other assistance programs. She contacted local officials and a domestic violence shelter and began taking in the pets of abuse victims, keeping them at the clinic until more permanent arrangements could be made. She provided a physical exam and any necessary vaccinations for these pets.

"This was my first introduction to law enforcement," Dr. Feeser says. "I contacted the first responders—the officers who go out on calls—to let them know the service was available. And I constantly reeducated them because of the high turnover in that group."

She also began investigating animal cruelty cases for the county. One memorable incident involved a cat that had had a firecracker inserted into its rectum and been set on fire. When Dr. Feeser contacted the city attorney, she refused to prosecute the case. "She said, 'I can't win with child abuse cases, let alone animals,'" she says. But by that point Dr. Feeser had developed a relationship with the sheriff's department. "They said, 'Give it to us. We'll investigate it.'"