Pets 101

Local Hero – A Life Line For People and Pets

Jenny CoffeyHow one social worker is making a difference for people in crisis

The statistics are alarming—over 70 percent of women entering a shelter reported their husband or boyfriend threatened, harmed, or killed their pet. And nearly 48 percent of battered women delay leaving abusive situations because they worry what will happen to their pet when they leave.

It was these reports combined with hearing horrifying stories first-hand that affected Jenny Coffey to the core. She couldn’t sit by and do nothing, so she established a pilot initiative called Helping Pets and People in Crisis.

The program, which began in 2006, is designed as a safe haven for pets. It is specifically for people experiencing some sort of personal life crisis, such as: domestic violence, loss of home or employment, or an elderly person needing to leave their home.

“It didn’t take us long to realize when people are at risk, animals are at risk,” she said. “Let’s face it, more than 60 percent of homes have animals—and when their guardian is in danger, so are they.”

Coffey, who works as a social worker, has a background in helping people deal with crisis. She said it was an easy transition because she saw in her previous cases that animals were being hurt or neglected in these types of situations.

“I saw these same types of problems on a daily basis,” she said. “And I am glad that I am finally in a position to be able to not only help the people, but help their pets as well.”

In the six years since the program began through the Mayor’s Alliance for New York City Animals, more than 500 animals have been helped, in about 300 cases.

“We are not able to keep every family and their pet together,” she said. “But we have had success in keeping as many families together as possible.”

Coffey said that it generally takes about seven months to reunite the families with their animals. During this time the animals are fostered through the hundreds of volunteers that keep the program up and running.

“Obviously, the best-case scenario is when the animal is fostered with family or a person close to the family,” she said. “But when that is not possible, we use our foster homes as safe havens.”

Yorkie in ShelterThere isn’t a day that goes by that Coffey doesn’t hear of dire situations where families need to find immediate homes for their pets. And because most shelters will not take animals for an undefined period of time, there are really no other options.

“This is the worst recession since the Great Depression, and the animals are becoming the primary victims,” she said. “We want to help these families get through hard times and still have their animal cared for. If giving them up seems like the only option, we want to help them find a solution.”

Helping Pets and People in Crisis does not advertise, and generally works on a referral basis through domestic violence organizations and violence hotlines.

“We have been inundated with phone calls and situations of crisis,” she said. “The problem is funding. We cannot afford to advertise, not because of the price of advertising, but because the volume of people that need our services.”

Coffey said her biggest worry is that the program will not be able to sustain itself for much longer. It is a program that is needed by families across the United States, but especially in New York.

“We have seen some of the worst situations—from dogs that have been kicked, burned, and beaten—to situations where we are forced to remove dogs from families knowing they will never return,” she said. “But it is the beautiful reunions that keep me going, knowing we are accomplishing our mission of keeping pets with their people.”

—Kelsey Duckett

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