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Image: Supplied (additional design by Tina Tiller)
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SocietyJune 3, 2023

‘It can happen to absolutely anyone’: A day in the life of a Pet Refuge caseworker

Image: Supplied (additional design by Tina Tiller)
Image: Supplied (additional design by Tina Tiller)

Every day, pets are being removed from domestic violence situations around the country. Alex Casey talks to one of the workers on the front line. 

This story contains discussion of domestic violence and emotional abuse, please take care.

Alice Hayward has never been busier. As a caseworker for Pet Refuge, she says the demand for her services is at an all-time high. In the year she has been working for the charity, she has picked up everything from cats and dogs to alpacas, donkeys and water dragons, all in aid of helping people escape domestic violence situations across the country.

“It’s really rewarding knowing that you’re helping someone in such a huge way,” she says. “You’re not just helping the animal, but you’re actually helping the client, or the victim, as well.”

Having been a vet nurse for 14 years, Hayward says her entire life has been “animal related”. But the chance to work with Pet Refuge provided an opportunity for her to use not just her experience with pets, but her own personal history to help others. Hayward has lived with domestic violence in a relationship before, and says it is a useful way of connecting with people on the job. “It’s amazing being able to give them that encouragement and let them know that you’ve been through it, that it is hard, but it gets better,” she says. 

Alice Hayward, Pet Refuge caseworker. (Photo: Supplied)

As Hayward explains it, many people who find themselves in domestic violence situations often rely on their animals as crucial companions in times of abuse and upset. “They confide in their animals – their animals become their loyal and trustworthy friends,” she says. “But then when they want to leave, the abuser knows that the animal is their lifeline, and will use that against them as a form of control.” This is where Pet Refuge comes in, removing the animal and transporting it to a safe place, and allowing the victim to take back some control. 

“It takes a lot of stress off,” she says. “It’s providing peace of mind – knowing your pet is safe so you can get yourself and your kids to a safe place too.” 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, no two days in the life of a Pet Refuge worker are ever the same. The charity works closely alongside other domestic violence agencies and police to remove animals from situations, and exit plans can be deployed at all hours of the day and night. Hayward recalls one instance where a woman had to urgently leave her home for her own safety, but had a horse on the premises that was due to give birth. “She couldn’t be there to keep an eye on it, so we left at about three o’clock in the morning, to get there really early, get it done, and get out of the way.” 

The Pet Refuge staff with some dogs in their care. (Photo: Supplied)

In another instance, she visited a property that was “smashed up” and found a very old, very grumpy dog barking behind a fence. “The victim and the abuser had to leave – he was in custody – but the dog wasn’t in good health. And it was so nice to take her in.” In the care and safety of Pet Refuge, the dog got back to good health and was eventually returned to the family at their new location. “Seeing the kids’ faces when they reunite again is just the best,” Hayward says. “It really makes it all worth it.” 

While there are rewarding moments, there’s also no shortage of challenges. “There are always certain cases that are really bad, especially ones where the pet is harmed.” Christmas is always a particularly busy time, with the extra financial strain on families leading to more instances of abuse. 

“It’s not really publicised just how much domestic violence is out there and the pressures that can cause people to turn.” Every December, the pet refuge has to turn to overflow facilities to keep up with demand. “It’s bad – and now with the cost of living, the stress on a lot of families is just pretty insane.” 

Hayward says that Pet Refuge services are at an all time high. (Photo: Supplied)

One of the big misconceptions about domestic violence, Hayward explains, is that it only affects “low decile” areas. “It can happen to absolutely anyone. Even people that are high profile, wealthy, it’s happening to them too. There’s a lot of emotional control, and most of the domestic violence is not just physical. The mental control is the hardest because nobody can see what goes on behind closed doors and there are no marks left behind.” 

From her work on the front line, Hayward is emphatic in expressing that domestic violence is “100%” getting worse in Aotearoa. “It’s really emotional and really sad to know that people are going through some really awful times out there,” she says. “Something will always surprise you. If you think you’ve heard it all, you’ve never heard it all.” Her hope is that more people will become aware of the extent of the issue, and reach out to people in their own lives. “Just be a bit more aware, get your friends out for social events, check in on your friends and your family.”

Hayward also says a lot more educational support is needed, not just for victims but abusers too. “We need to teach them how to control their anger, that this behaviour is not OK,” she says. While refuges and services across the country struggle to cope with demand and minimal support, she’s grateful that these places exist in the first place. “If it wasn’t for Pet Refuge, I would probably be a lot more worried about the state of a lot of families and victims. So there’s a definite need – we’ve now just got to grow to be able to help even more people.” 

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