Lara Peterson's black kitten Ozzie comforted her during a violent relationship. When Ozzie was just five months old Peterson returned home from work to find his lifeless body lying on a trash bag. She believes he was killed by the man who abused her.
"What kind of message to send to somebody, to kill their cat? I mean, that's terrifying," said Peterson, who left her abuser six months later. She recounted her story to Minnesota legislators this week to support a bill that would extend domestic violence protections to pets.
The proposal seeks to make Minnesota the 14th state to include pets in court orders designed to protect a person from harm or harassment. Considerations can include temporary custody of children, no-contact orders and counseling or treatment requirements.
Advocates say almost half of battered women nationwide who stay in dangerous situations do so out of fear for what might happen to their pets if they leave. The pet can become a proxy for the victim. Minnesota lawmakers considered written testimony from Penny Peters of Rush City, a stabbing survivor who said she stayed with her batterer for 13 years, partly out of concern for her dog.
"It would be difficult to leave even though you should because you know you're leaving this pet to be maimed or killed," said Mary Lou Randour, a psychologist with the Humane Society of the United States.
Minnesota judges can already include pets in domestic violence protective orders, but that authority is not spelled out in state law. Liz Richards of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women said while many victims understand they can ask for protection of their children or at their workplace, they don't know they can ask the court to consider their pets.
The penalties for violating protective orders range from three days in jail and counseling for first offenses, to five years in prison, fines of up to $10,000, or both for multiple offenses or those involving weapons.
Minnesota law withdraws gun rights for three years to life for those who violate protective orders using firearms. State law requires authorities to seize the gun in such cases.
The National Rifle Association warned last year that an earlier version of the bill proposed by Rep. Michael Paymar, a St. Paul Democrat, could have resulted in lost gun rights for someone who accidentally or innocently violated a protective order by having contact with a pet, for example when a dog runs up to its owner.
A House crime victim panel amended the legislation at Paymar's request to remove a no-contact requirement and specify that a batterer could be required to refrain from harassing, hurting or hiding a pet. Judges would also decide which party keeps the pet in a domestic abuse case.
Several lawmakers questioned how a court would determine which partner owned the pet.
Rep. Ron Shimanski, R-Silver Lake, wondered whether one partner in an abusive relationship could request a pet protective order, for example to deprive his or her abuser of a hunting dog on the eve of a hunting trip. Rep. Dave Olin, a Democrat from Thief River Falls, said the pet owner wouldn't necessarily even know the order existed if the victim went to court under a provision allowing only one party to appear.
The bill passed the committee on a voice vote with audible nays and now heads to a House public safety panel. The Senate version awaits a floor vote.
Peterson, 41, of Minneapolis, meanwhile now has four dogs and works with animal rescue. It is two decades since her ex killed her cat.
She said she buried Ozzie the day he was killed but stayed with her abusive boyfriend for six months more, until he broke some of her ribs.
"That's when I knew I really, really had to go," she said.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)