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Posted by on January 27, 2012.

Ahimsa House serves pets of domestic violence victims

Melissa Dorrell, a volunteer with Ahimsa House, works with Boss, one of the dogs in the nonprofit’s care.

Melissa Dorrell, a volunteer with Ahimsa House, works with Boss, one of the dogs in the nonprofit’s care.

The playful Labrador-Greyhound mix was all tail-wags and tricks for Melissa Dorrell when he visited Kelsey’s Dog House recently. He showed off one of his new moves, sitting still for a morsel of food.

Dorrell, the dog’s current caretaker, brought him to the Buckhead-based Kelsey’s, a boarding and grooming business, from an undisclosed location. Like the hundreds of dogs helped each year by Ahimsa House, this dog was once on the receiving end of an abusive relationship between his owner and her significant other, Dorrell said.

The dog’s former owner also owned the dog’s mother. In addition to the damage the abuser inflicted on his partner, the abuser also denied the dogs food and hit them, Dorrell said.

Often animals become pawns in an abusers’ attempts to control victims. Ahimsa House estimates that 50 percent of domestic violence victims are afraid to leave their abusers because they worry about their pets. Nationwide, fewer than 1 in 8 shelters allow residents to bring pets, the nonprofit reported.

Ahimsa House – which takes its name from a Sanskrit word meaning “nonviolence” — doesn’t disclose a pets’ location for the same reasons domestic violence shelters stay off the radar: in a domestic violence situation, retribution can be routine.

“I lovingly call Ahimsa House ‘animal witness protection,’” Dorrell said.

The organization works to reunite the dogs with their owners once they’re no longer in danger. In the meantime, Dorrell is trying to socialize the Lab-Greyhound mix with other dogs as well as house-break him. The group also covers all veterinarian expenses and every animal is spayed and neutered, Dorrell said.

Maya Gupta, executive director of Ahimsa House, said Ahimsa was founded in 2004 by Emily Christie who lost her cat to domestic violence.

“Emily took a look around and found out nationwide 71 percent of victims report the abuser threatened or even hurt or killed their pet,” Gupta said. “You couple that with fewer than 1/8 domestic violence shelters allowing pets and you wind up with a big problem.”

On average Ahimsa takes care of 200 pets per year. The nonprofit is based in Atlanta but assists domestic violence victims throughout Georgia. In addition to dogs and cats, the organization has rescued birds, guinea pigs an iguana and a horse. Gupta said the group coordinates with domestic violence centers and receives referrals from law enforcement officials, veterinarians and rescue groups.

The group distributes the animals through a network of foster homes and veterinarians. Ahimsa receives funding through individual donations and grants and has a $130,000 budget, Gupta said.

In addition, the group also provides legal advocacy services for owners to demonstrate proof of ownership or to obtain a restraining order. It operates a 24-hour crisis line that receives 600 calls per year. The number is (404) 452-6248.

If the pets aren’t claimed, Gupta said Ahimsa transfers the animal to a rescue group to find adoptive families for them. Gupta said there is no other nonprofit in Georgia providing this service.

Myra Rasnick, a program services coordinator with Ahimsa, also staffs the 24-hour crisis line. She’s been through the process of getting domestic violence victims out of their homes on the front end and talking to them about reuniting with their pets at the end of their journey. It’s what makes her job worthwhile, she said.

“It can be just so emotional for them,” Rasnick said. “I hear almost daily, ‘I don’t know what I would’ve done without you,’ ‘ I would’ve lost my pet without you.’”

Melissa Woodhead, owner of Kelsey’s Dog House said she keeps Ahimsa animals at the boarding center. She’s also a survivor of domestic violence and said concern for her pets caused her to stay in the relationship, “longer than I needed to.” Woodhead said Ahimsa is a much-needed organization.

“It’s the answer for someone (suffering from) domestic violence that has a pet,” Woodhead said. “It means so much to me.”