August 15th, 2022
By Katie Campbell, Director of Collaboration and Outreach
Sometimes it just takes saying “yes.” Yes to taking on something new and, in the process, you might find something transformative.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Kristina Smith, Executive Director of MARYS House, a domestic violence (DV) organization in South Carolina. In 2015, staff at the shelter were faced with a decision: become pet-friendly, or turn away a survivor who refused to leave behind her two dogs. When staff members asked Kristina, “Can we take the whole family?” she simply said, “Yes, let’s figure it out.”
And figure it out they did – even with some initial reservations about the prospect of two high-energy dogs coming into the shelter.
One staff member, affectionately referred to as the “resident grandma,” was apprehensive about the potential strain on staff time to help care for the animals during the day when the survivor and her daughter were out. There was a collective “fear of the unknown,” as Kristina described it.
To support her team during this experimental period, Kristina took on some of the dog-care responsibilities. “Grandma” visited with Kristina and the pups during their outside play time and soon found that she actually enjoyed being with them. Eventually, Grandma decided she could handle the dogs on her own – and so she did. The time spent with the dogs became such a special part of their day that staff felt the shelter was too quiet upon the family’s departure.
Since then, all kinds of animals have made their way through the shelter, from dogs and cats to a parrot and even chickens and ducks. Kristina recalls that she completed the RedRover Safe Housing application with a duckling in her lap!
Kristina believes that “pets help turn the negative to a positive.” The situations survivors face are challenging and deeply painful. It’s a completely reasonable and natural response to be overwhelmed by the circumstances and absorb the feelings of negativity and despair. But when pets are present, Kristina finds that people seem a little lighter – there’s something positive to focus on.
“Pets let you verbalize stuff rather than holding it all in,” she says. “They really help take the negative out.” And the benefits of having pets around extends beyond the survivor. According to Kristina, “Just the mention of a pet coming to shelter reduces the stress level of staff.”
Emotional well-being and morale are worthwhile perks, but Kristina explains the added bonus for her organization: Becoming pet-friendly has opened up a new funding stream from individual donors and grant funds. The involvement of pets seems to make the topic of domestic violence more relevant to animal lovers. The animals’ presence on-site provides a means to talk about challenging topics. Kristina shares, “People don’t like talking about domestic violence, but they do like talking about animals.” Even the contractors who are currently working on the shelter’s pet-friendly spaces love animals and are providing some in-kind support along the way. Yet another reason Kristina advises other shelters, “Don’t be afraid to talk about it.”
The effects of having pets on-site at Kristina’s shelter have been so transformative that they’ve welcomed in a new “mascot.” Bessie May joined the team a short time ago and is in training to become an on-site therapy dog – and the world’s cutest welcoming committee.
We ended our conversation with me asking Kristina what words of wisdom she would share with others interested in becoming pet-friendly:
“Don’t be afraid to mess up and do something wrong. That’s where your best and most creative solutions come from. You’re just starting at the bottom of the learning curve but you will learn.”