Interview with Maya Gupta, Executive Director of Ahimsa House

At the 2012 Animal Law Conference, sponsored by ALDF and the Center for Animal Law Studies (CALS) at Lewis & Clark, Dr. Maya Gupta spoke on the link between domestic violence and animal cruelty. Dr. Gupta is the executive director of Ahimsa House–a nonprofit based in Atlanta, Georgia. She spoke with ALDF recently about her work with victims of violence and what we can do to help.

Maya Gupta

Meet Dr. Maya Gupta

From a young age, Maya Gupta wanted to pursue practical work that could change the world. She now holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and is the chair of the Animal Human Interaction Committee for the American Psychological Association, vice-chair for the Cobb County Domestic Violence Task Force, and a board member for the Georgia Coalition against Domestic Violence.

The Link Between Violence to Humans and Animals

Animal abuse is often used to silence victims of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and neglect. While pursuing graduate study, Maya saw a poster for a domestic violence crisis line in a subway that highlighted that "threats to pets" could be a way of controlling human victims. For her, it was a "light-bulb moment." As a child, when Maya’s classmates had harmed animals their actions were dismissed with an attitude that it was "just how boys are." Later, that attitude resounded in records of murderers who also abused animals. She received some dismissiveness to her own research. "Animals?" people said, scratching their heads. "But psychology is about people!" Still, Maya recognized similar patterns between the abuse of animals and of people–such as the use of violence to demand submission or as a response to a perceived emotional slight. Professionals refer to this connection as "The Link."

Listen to more about how Maya made the connections between animal and human abuse.

Ahimsa House–a Model Organization

This link points to a dire need for the services offered by Ahimsa House–such as emergency boarding, foster care, veterinary attention, legal advocacy, crisis intervention, and prosecution (ahimsa is the Sanskrit word for "nonviolence"). "If people care about improving safety and well-being for human victims and improving offender accountability, they need to pay attention this connection," Maya says.

Listen to more about Ahimsa House, its origin, and how it helps the community. 8:01-9:09

How Animals Become Victims and Why Victims Stay

Maya explains "so often the answer to ‘why doesn’t the person just leave?’ is that the abuser has been so successful at weaving an emotional web of threats, and degrading that person’s self-esteem and confidence in the ability to even strike out on one’s own." Threats to animals play an intricate part in that manipulation. Abusers say "leave, and I’ll kill the animal." This fear can paralyze a victim. Maya sees this in court when abusers try to get legal custody of an animal, not because they want the animal, but because they want the leverage to force the victim home. Similarly, the threat of harm to an animal can silence or punish a child for reporting.

Studies show that nearly half of all abuse victims delay seeking personal safety from violence because of threats to animals. Another study indicates that 71% of women entering shelters have experienced a threat to, harm of, or murder of their animal companions. Women entering shelters, in another survey, are eleven times more likely to have experienced threats to their animals than other women in the community. The statistics in Ahimsa House bear this out–nearly half of the women who contact Ahimsa House report they delayed seeking safety out of concern for their companion animal. This terrible fear often stops women from calling the police or filing a police report.

Listen to Maya as she discusses the power of emotional threats, child abuse, and threats against animals. 18:05-19:48

What the Law Can Do

Georgia doesn’t have the "pets in protection orders" laws some states have recently adopted. When the only protection available to animals comes in personal property laws, abusers can challenge ownership. Victims, and human services professionals, often aren’t aware of the importance of establishing ownership. Laws that put companion animals directly in protection orders allow judges to direct the custody of any animal in the house. But passing these laws has been difficult given the current political climate. Some lawmakers hesitate to re-open the domestic violence statute for fear others would use it to introduce amendments that would weaken current protections for domestic violence victims.

Felony animal cruelty laws, Maya says, can also help. The ability to prosecute for felony animal cruelty can aid in domestic violence cases moving forward, because, sadly, most domestic violence cases are only prosecuted at the misdemeanor level. Similarly, there is some debate about whether mandatory reporting laws can be enforced properly. "Sometimes we can accomplish similar results," she says, "by focusing on simply building solid inter-agency relationships at the community level." Maya says cooperation can enhance the coordination of community responses to violence in all its forms.

On February 12, 2013, the Senate passed reauthorization of the Violence
Against Women Act.

Listen to Maya talk about Animal Cruelty, Domestic Violence, and the Law. 13:10- 14:03

Fighting Violence, Helping Victims

Despite the stress of her position, Maya says "no matter how exhausting the case may be and no matter how frustrating it might be to do this work" it’s worth it to her "when we’re able to reunite an animal with a family, and to see the joy, not only in the human members of that family, but with the animals." That pleasure keeps her working the hard cases. "What lights a fire under me," she says is "watching other people…have that light-bulb moment, just like I did on the subway train so many years ago, when they really understand for the first time the connection between domestic violence and animal cruelty."

What can people do to help?

Ahimsa House partners with other organizations–if someone doesn’t have a way to get an animal to safety, they can get the animals to vets, and to safety. People can visit ahimsahouse.org to find volunteer opportunities ranging from donating an hour or two a month to getting more involved with foster opportunities or assisting with their animal transport network, helping at outreach events, or staffing the crisis line. People outside of Georgia can call and be connected with a network in their states, too. Find them on Facebook and Twitter: @ahimsahouse.

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