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  • April 03, 2019

    A Barrier Removed: New Federal Legislation Addresses Pets of Abuse Victims

    A new federal law expands protections for domestic abuse victims with provisions that apply to the victim's household pets, emotional support and service animals.

    Christopher Sean Krimmer

    woman holding dog

    April 3, 2019 – If you have a pet dog or cat, you most likely can appreciate the strong emotional bond that pet owners have with their furry friends.  

    Last year in the U.S., we spent over $70 billion on our pets, which signifies the importance we place on our relationship with them.1 Unfortunately, too often, domestic abusers recognize this emotional attachment and exploit and manipulate the victim’s relationship with their pets by causing or threatening harm to the pet.

    Up to one-third of domestic violence victims in one study shared that they delayed their decision to leave a domestic abuser for fear of the safety and well-being of their pet if the victim were to leave the pet behind with the abuser.2

    For most victims, bringing a pet with them is not a viable option with only three percent of domestic abuse shelters able to accommodate pets.3 This obstacle for some victims of domestic abuse to leave the abusive relationship was recently addressed in new federal legislation enacted as the Pets and Women Safety Act (PAWS).4

    The PAWS legislation, which passed with bipartisan support and was enacted on Dec. 20, 2018,5 expands federal protections for abuse victims by adding three provisions to the federal codes related to stalking, domestic abuse protection orders, and the restitution a victim of domestic abuse may receive for the past abuse.

    The provisions were included as part of the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018. Prior bills, introduced in 2017, noted the legislation aimed to “protect victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and dating violence from emotional and psychological trauma caused by acts of violence or threats of violence against their pets.”6

    Interstate Stalking

    Under 18 U.S. section 2261A, interstate stalking occurs when a person travels interstate – or enters or leaves the jurisdiction of an Indian tribal government or U.S. territory – with intent to kill, injure, harass, or intimidate another person, placing that targeted person in reasonable fear for his or her own death or serious injury, or to that of an immediate family member, spouse or intimate partner.7

    Christopher S. Krimmer Christopher S. Krimmer, U.W. 1997, is a family law attorney with DeWitt Ross & Stevens S.C., Madison.

    The statute also applies if a person travels across state lines with intent to harm, intimidate, or harass and as a result of that conduct “causes, attempts to cause, or would be reasonably expected to cause substantial emotional distress” to a person or that person’s immediate family member, spouse or intimate partner. 

    At least one court has determined that intent, travel, and reasonable fear of injury or death are the only elements of the crime. That is, an ill-intending person need not take further steps beyond traveling with intent to harm to be guilty of interstate stalking, if there is sufficient evidence to support the victim’s reasonable fear of injury or death.

    “After all, when a defendant has repeatedly threatened to harm his victims and then travels across state lines intending to inflict that harm, it would strain credulity to think that Congress meant to hold the defendant harmless until he took some further step to carry out his threat,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled in 2011.8

    Now, under PAWS, interstate stalking occurs if an individual travels in interstate commerce with intent to kill, injure, harass or intimidate, and engages in conduct that places another person in fear of death or serious injury to that person’s pet. Specifically, the statute applies to pets, horses, service animals, or emotional support animals.

    The term “pet” means “a domesticated animal, such as a dog, cat, bird, rodent, fish, turtle, or other animal that is kept for pleasure rather than for commercial purposes.”9

    Interstate stalking also occurs if a person – with the intent to kill, injure, harass, or intimidate – uses the mail, email, or other electronic communication system or service of interstate commerce and as a result of the communication, the targeted person reasonably fears for his or her own death or serious bodily injury or that of an immediate family member, spouse, intimate partner, or pet.10

    For instance, let’s say Jane Doe wants to leave her abusive partner but the abusive partner emails Jane or calls her cell phone and threatens to hurt Jane’s dog if she leaves, and Jane reasonably fears that her dog would be harmed if she left the abuser. The abuser’s intent could be gleaned from his conduct, including his words.

    Because the abuser used an electronic communication system or service of interstate commerce to threaten Jane’s dog, he can be charged with federal interstate stalking. It would arguably not matter that they live in the same state, because the abuser has used an electronic communication system or service in interstate commerce to make threats.

    Interstate Violation of Protection Orders

    In states that allow a domestic abuse injunction to include protection for a victim’s pet, PAWS imposes criminal penalties for violating the protection order.

    Specifically, it now violates federal law to travel across state lines (or enter or leave the jurisdiction of a tribal government or a U.S. territory) with the intent to engage in conduct that violates an order that “prohibits or provides protection against violence, threats, or harassment against, contact or communication with, or physical proximity to, another person, or the pet, service animal, emotional support animal, or horse of that person.”11

    If a person travels across state lines to engage in conduct that violates a Wisconsin protection order, federal penalties apply. Wisconsin’s domestic abuse injunction statute allows courts to include provisions in the injunction that protect any pets of the victim from abuse. Specifically, Wis.  Stat. section 813.12(4)(a) reads in relevant part:

    A judge or circuit court commissioner may grant an injunction ordering the respondent to refrain from committing acts of domestic abuse against the petitioner, to avoid the petitioner's residence, except as provided in par. (am), or any other location temporarily occupied by the petitioner or both, or to avoid contacting or causing any person other than a party's attorney or a law enforcement officer to contact the petitioner unless the petitioner consents to that contact in writing, to refrain from removing, hiding, damaging, harming, or mistreating, or disposing of, a household pet, to allow the petitioner or a family member or household member of the petitioner acting on his or her behalf to retrieve a household pet, or any combination of these remedies requested in the petition, or any other appropriate remedy not inconsistent with the remedies requested in the petition. …

    Wisconsin defines a “household pet” as “a domestic animal that is not a farm animal … that is kept, owned, or cared for by the petitioner or by a family member or a household member of the petitioner.”12 PAWS specifically includes protections for horses.

    Thus, if Jane Doe has moved to Wisconsin from Michigan to escape her abuser and obtains a protection order that prohibits the abuser from coming near Jane or her dog, the abuser violates federal law if he drives to Wisconsin intending to threaten or intimidate Jane, or to hurt her dog.

    The federal law also applies if an individual “causes” another person’s pet, horse, service or emotional support animal to travel across state lines (or through Indian country or U.S. territory) by force, coercion, duress, or fraud and such conduct would violate a protection order that prohibits violence, threats, or harassment against, contact or communication with, or physical proximity to the person’s pet.

    Restitution and Shelter Funding

    Finally, the new PAWS legislation includes restitution for the victim of the abuse that includes the veterinary services relating to physical care of pets.13

    In addition to these three substantive changes to the federal legislation related to domestic abuse and stalking, the PAWS Act included funding of $3 million annually to be used as grants for programs that provide emergency or transitional shelter and housing for domestic abuse victims with pets.

    The funds are available for the construction of shelters for the pets or providing services to the victims in locating and securing safe housing for the victim’s pets.14


    The PAWS Act recognizes not only the importance of the relationship between people and their pets, but the unique circumstances of how an abuser can manipulate this relationship to force the victim to remain in the abusive relationship. The legislation is intended to not only protect the pet from abuse but to alleviate any concerns the victim may have about the safety of his or her pet in deciding to escape the abuse. 

    The legislation reflects a positive step in the right direction in this highly political and polarizing time by garnering broad bipartisan support. Abuse against humans often go hand-in-hand with abuse against animals. As Immanuel Kant once said, “He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.”15


    1 American Pet Production Association, Pet Industry Market Size & Ownership Statistics, 2018.

    2 Grinberg, Emanuella, A new law aims to help the pets of domestic violence victims, CNN (Dec. 21, 2018).

    3 Id.

    4 Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (H.R. 2), Section 12502: Protecting Animals with Shelter.

    5 Id.

    6 See H.R. 909 (2017-18) and S. 322 (2017-18).

    7 18 U.S.C. § 2261A(1)(A).

    8 United States v. Walker, 665 F.3d 212, 225 (1st Cir. 2011).

    9 18 U.S.C. § 2266(11).

    10 18 U.S.C. §2261A(2).

    11 18 U.S.C. § 2262 (emphasis added).

    12 Wis. Stat. § 813.12(1)(c).

    13 18 U.S.C. § 2264 (b)(3)(F).

    14 12 USC 12502(b).

    15 Lectures on Ethics (Cambridge University Press 1997).

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