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KALAMAZOO, MI - U.S. Senator Gary Peters is working to expand protection of victims of domestic violence and their pets.
The Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act, which Peters reintroduced in Congress earlier this year, would expand existing federal domestic violence protections to include threats or acts of violence against a victim's pet and force abusers to reimburse victims for any related veterinarian fees.
"Most people don't realize how widespread domestic violence is in our communities," Peters said.
The legislation would also provide grant funding to programs that offer shelter and housing assistance for domestic violence victims with pets.
"We want to take that control away from the abusers," Kalamazoo County Sheriff Rick Fuller said.
Peters spoke about the legislation Tuesday afternoon at the YWCA Kalamazoo.
"What we find is in many victims of abuse stay in an abusive relationship because they're afraid (for) their dog or their cat or their other pet," Peters said.
My Sister's house, created about three years ago, provides foster homes for pets, in any medical condition, free of charge, for victims who come to the YWCA Kalamazoo.
Katie Timber, executive director of the SPCA of Southwest Michigan, said the My Sister's House program has housed pets anywhere from three weeks to three months.
"Sadly, abusers also target the victims because of their pets and without that great partnership some of these women would never leave," Grace Lubwama, CEO of the YWCA, said.
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), only 3 percent of domestic violence shelters across the country accept pets.
Cathy Brown, director of victim's services at the YWCA, said domestic violence victims "may not even reach out for help because they don't think there's any place to go, any place that will take their pet."
Brown said around one in 10 victims who come through the YWCA for help mention abuse involving a pet. The YWCA Kalamazoo serves 800 women annually and is the only domestic violence shelter in Kalamazoo County.