As she emerged from a dark and dire tunnel involving domestic violence, depression and losing all confidence, a beautiful dog named Gremlin helped animal lover Stephanie* see the light.
"Pets give you unconditional love. They helped me heal," the South Islander reflects. "I held onto Gremlin when I wasn't feeling good. I could cry to my pets, tell them everything and share my hopes and dreams without them thinking I was stupid."
It was late Gremlin who also helped Stephanie, 65, muster up the courage to leave a tumultuous three-year relationship.
Walking out marked a fresh start for Stephanie, who started getting pets after becoming a young mum at 18. Her first dog, Barney, taught her the importance of an animal's emotional wellbeing.
"There's more to having a pet than feeding, washing and exercising it," she tells. "There's the emotional part – loving and caring for them."
Eager to further her education once her three children were in high school, the solo mum completed a business course and started working at Porirua Community Law Centre.
However, due to her difficult home life, she was taken in by Women's Refuge, where she continued raising her children until a friend helped her move to Invercargill.
It was there that Stephanie took in Gremlin while helping set up a community law centre. During that time, she became involved in another unhealthy relationship. She alleges that her now-deceased ex was frequently drunk, verbally and physically abusive and gave her curfews.
"I didn't start off with a lot of confidence or self-esteem and what I did have, he took he away. He took everything. I acted confident, but I was the lowest of lows."
Stephanie's pain was deepened by witnessing her pets suffer. "Gremlin's life was threatened if I didn't do what I was told. Having a pet's like having a child – you'd do anything for your children."
"He told me, 'Do as you're told, and I won't hurt the dog'. I gave in to demands, so that Gremlin could stay alive."
Stephanie didn't know of any pet refuges, but she had a friend temporarily care for Gremlin, then accepted help from a bank manager, who noticed bruising on her face and offered a loan so she could move out.
"I packed up and left. I never thought I'd do that. I always thought I needed a man in my life. But I couldn't keep seeing my animals being hurt. Domestic violence is bad at the best of times, but when you've got pets, it's 100% worse. They develop a sense of, 'Dad's hurting mum. What should I do?'"
Gremlin eventually passed away, but by then Stephanie had a shih tzu, Scruffy, who continued helping her heal, snuggling into her shoulder anytime she woke up bawling.
Stephanie's now happily married to a husband who's "great" with her dog and three cats. She urges families to be conscious of a pet's all-round welfare, particularly at Christmas when children gifted animals may not recognise their emotional needs.
Stephanie's biggest lesson has been that you can't change people. "I often thought, 'Why do I have to go through all this? Why do I pick the worst of the bunch thinking I can make them better?'
"It took a long time to realise unless people want to change, they won't. I changed myself instead and came out better for it."
Julie Chapman knows how tough it can be to leave an unhealthy relationship. It took the Pet Refuge CEO 14 months to escape a violent situation in her twenties, during which verbal abuse alone "broke down my spirit".
Having frown up rescuing animals (she has 11 rescue cats, three dogs and two goats), Julie also knows how powerful pets can be - especially for victims of violence. "Animals can be their only comfort. When you're constantly told you're worthless, you cling onto your cat or dog."
That lifeline of comfort is one reasons people delay leaving abusive relationships if they can't take their animals. Julie, also CEO of KidsCan Charitable Trust, says some victims also face threats to their pets' lives. This was reflected in a 2018 Women's Refuge survey, in which 53% of people said they delayed leaving family violence for fear of their pet's safety.
It's why Julie founded Pet Refuge, NZ's first shelter for pets affected by family violence. "We care for people's pets until they can be reunited somewhere safe. By taking care of the animals, we want to remove one barrier to women leaving."
With construction almost completed in Auckland, the shelter's now fundraising to ensure it can operate fully-funded for the first six months.
You can donate to Pet Refuge's Christmas Appeal at petrefuge.org.nz or phone (09) 975 0850.
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