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Lazlo takes chores seriously at the 32-acre Blessed Be Farm, in Ellsworth, Maine, where Susan Walsh, 52, lives with her teenagers, Joshua, 18, and Cordelia, 16, and an assortment of pet ducks, turkeys, and sheep. Lazlo, a 12-year-old Belgian sheepdog, knows chickens belong in the barn and eagerly herds them in when they stray. He also thinks anything with wings is a chicken, however, so he barks and bounces on his hind legs as he tries to round up whatever flies by.
When it's time to turn in Lazlo sleeps on Walsh's bed. "He's my baby," says Walsh, a job coach to the developmentally disabled. She is a vegetarian, and she runs the farm as a hobby, keeping animals not for the table, but because she loves having them in her life. "All the animals are my family. I'm fierce about them."
Life wasn't always this cozy for Walsh and her brood. A sign in front of Blessed Be Farm reads "founded 1984, liberated 2001." The latter year was when Walsh's divorce became final -- after 12 years of marriage to a man who she says abused her emotionally, shot two of the family's sheep at close range, and wrung the necks of a dozen pet turkeys.
Though Walsh says she sometimes stood up to him, at other times she tried to justify his actions, telling herself that he must have been tired, for example. He would apologize after the incidents and promise to end his aggressive behavior, but then the cycle -- abuse followed by contrition -- would begin anew, Walsh recalls. In 2000 she received an order of protection and the following year, when the divorce was granted, she took over the farm.
"We had a difficult marriage. I had mood swings," her ex-husband admits today. "I had anger management. Lots of anger management."
As frightening as Walsh says her married life was, it helped jump-start a new era in animal safety. Research shows that domestic abusers are likely to threaten or harm family pets -- seemingly to frighten their partners into staying with them. In a 1997 study by Frank R. Ascione, PhD, a professor of psychology at Utah State University, 85 percent of domestic-violence shelters across the country reported their clients' pets had been abused. Also disturbing, Dr. Ascione noted that children traumatized by domestic violence were likely to hurt or kill animals, too.
In January 2006 Walsh told her story to the Maine state legislature, which was considering a bill that would allow judges in domestic-violence cases to issue protective orders not just for spouses and partners but for the first time to pets as well. The legislation also provided fines and eventual jail time for violators of such orders. The need to protect not just herself and her children, but also her animals, kept her locked in an abusive marriage, Walsh testified. "I might possibly have gotten my dogs out -- maybe even the cats. But I knew any animal I left behind would be dead within 24 hours," she explained.
Walsh's story helped trigger a legislative storm. In March 2006 Maine's governor signed the state's landmark pet-protection bill. Other states followed suit: New York and Vermont in 2006 and California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Nevada, and Tennessee in 2007. At press time similar bills were pending in Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin. Walsh is proud of these results, even if she's humble about her role in the process. "We cannot, as a civilized society, allow perpetrators of animal abuse to keep their partners trapped in dangerous, unacceptable situations," Walsh told legislators.
As a volunteer at a domestic abuse counseling group where she was once a client, Walsh now fosters dogs and cats -- recently including a boxer and her puppies -- for women on the run.
Aiding other women and creating changes in the law have helped Walsh recover, but her pain is not yet over. "I still tear up when I talk about Katydid," she says. "But I was a woman on a mission. Testifying was the right thing to do."
Phil Arkow, head of the American Humane Association's Human-Animal Bond Center, offers advice for those who wish to leave a violent home but are staying out of concern for pets.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2008.