Utah bill to protect pets from domestic abuse moves forward

Under the legislation, protective orders could prohibit abusers from harming or trying to seize family animals.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) A cat in the "Purradise City" cat room, at Ruff Haven pet shelter, on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021.

One woman said her former partner bought a puppy to distract her from his alcoholism and later began threatening to mistreat the dog when she tried to get away from him.

Another told state lawmakers her abusive ex used her daughter’s service dog to control them, since he knew they couldn’t leave without the animal.

Their experiences are not unusual, animal advocates and domestic violence experts told a Utah legislative committee on Friday.

More than 70% of pet owners who arrive at a domestic violence shelter say their abuser had also threatened or harmed their animal, according to the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence. And as many as a quarter of survivors will go back to an abusive partner because they’re worried about a pet.

That’s why Rep. Angela Romero brought forward a bill that aims to arm domestic violence survivors with options for protecting their pets. Her bill, HB175, would allow survivors to include their pets on court-issued protective orders, prohibiting the abuser from harming, threatening or trying to take possession of the animal.

“Abusers often exploit the emotional attachments their victims have to their pets,” Abigail Benesh of the Humane Society of Utah said. “Their pets, then, become pawns in this cruel game of coercion, manipulation and control in order to create an environment of fear and induced compliance.”

In some cases, abusers hurt or even kill animals to get back at their victims, advocates told state lawmakers.

Several cases have been well-publicized over the past few years, said Rachel Heatley of the humane society.

A Farmington man was arrested last year after two women accused him of abusing them and injuring or killing their animals. One of the women said he’d killed four of her cats within a two-month span, FOX13 reported.

In another case from last year, a red heeler named Dixie was intentionally set on fire and abandoned near Interstate 80 in Tooele. A man lit Dixie on fire to get back at her owner, with whom he had a previous relationship, police said.

Heatley said Dixie suffered for several days until she was euthanized.

Several domestic violence survivors also spoke up Friday, explaining how their abusers tried to control them by manipulating their love for their pets. A couple also said keeping ownership of their pet has been a significant part of their healing process.

“I honestly can’t help but wonder if I would’ve even been alive if I didn’t have this dog because she gave me purpose and a will to live,” one woman said through tears.

She also said she probably would’ve left her abuser sooner if she’d had the options provided by the bill Romero, D-Salt Lake City, has brought forward.

Thirty-five other states already offer such protections to pets, and members of the committee said it’s high time Utah joined them.

The House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee voted unanimously in favor of the bill, which will now head to the House floor for a vote.