The Silent Witnesses


Portrait of a red-haired woman who hugs a sleepy black dog, duchshund. Woman out of focus.

Imagine living with someone who puts you in such fear of you life that you find yourself having to flee your home with your children but leaving one important member of your family behind: your pet. Sadly, that is the situation all too many people experiencing domestic violence and abuse find themselves in. Now one charity based in Cornwall is helping pets and their owners find freedom from domestic violence and abuse. Refuge4Pets provides a pet fostering service across Devon and Cornwall, so that individuals and families can escape violent and abusive relationships to access the safety and support that they need before being reunited with their pets.

Mary Wakeham, the founder of Refuge4Pets, has a background working as an independent domestic violence advocate in Cornwall.

She says: ‘I lost track of the number of people who said: “I can’t go, I’ve got no-one who can take my pet.” These are the people at high risk of significant harm or even homicide and because they’re totally isolated, they’ll stay in relationships because of their pets. They know what will happen if they leave them behind’

It’s a sad fact that pets are often used by the abuser as a tool to control a non-abusive partner. And also, pets are an important part of a survivor’s coping strategy.

Unfortunately, refuges just aren’t equipped to take pets, so Refuge4Pets works with them – as well as police and domestic violence support services – to provide foster homes for a pet for up to six months while their owner accesses the support they need. The charity keeps in regular contact with the pet owner, sending pictures and updates. Although they only started last August, they’ve got 80 foster carers across Devon and Cornwall.

‘Many people who have come forward have been touched by abuse in their lives, whether as children or adults.’ says Mary. As with rescue centres, animals are matched to the right foster home for them and Refuge4Pets go out to do checks and ask for references. So far over 60 pets have been fostered, helping more than 40 families to escape domestic violence and abuse. Many say they wouldn’t have left if it wasn’t for Refuge4Pets. However, more help is always needed. To find out how to become a foster carer or make a donation, visit the website here.

If you need help from the service – which covers Devon as well – you can contact a member of the team directly through the website, leaving a message with a safe contact number and a safe time to call them back. It isn’t just dogs that Refuge4Pets will help. It’s cats, hamsters, rabbits, horses and even ducks.

‘The reality is, one in three women – and one in six men – will experience domestic violence at some point in their adult life.’ explains Mary. ‘When you think about all the children exposed to domestic violence and abuse and that half of households in this area have a pet, it’s a really important service.’

NEED HELP? Contact a member of the team via the website, leaving a message with a safe contact number and a safe time for them to call.