Milwaukee, WI (ABC 4 News) – The bond between people and their pets can be so strong that sometimes it makes them afraid to leave violent relationships.
The vast majority of domestic violence victims say their batterers abuse their pets to hurt them, yet many victims are reluctant to flee those dangerous homes.
Heidi Hildebrandt credits her dogs with guiding her down what was at times a very dark road.
"They've been here through the worst times with me," Hildebrandt said. "You're always No. 1 in their eyes. For me that's, they mean the world to me for that."
For four years, Hildebrandt lived in a violent relationship. It started with verbal abuse, escalated to beatings and then threats on her life.
"There was a time he held a loaded gun to my head. He also held it to his head once, saying that would be worse than killing me because I would have to live with that vision forever," Hildebrandt said.
Then one day, he turned on Bella, one of their dogs.
"She was begging, and we were trying to train her to go to a chair. He got so upset because she was not listening to him, and he got up, and she ran and hid, and he chased, picked her up and threw her in the chair," Hildebrandt said. "She came running around the chair over to me, and she got right under my legs. He came over to try to get her out. I'm screaming at him to stop. My heart just broke into a million pieces."
Hildebrandt said she felt trapped.
"He threatened that if I would leave he would kill them," Hildebrandt said.
Hildebrandt was not alone. The American Humane Association said 68 percent of battered women report their abusers hurt their animals, 71 percent of pet-owners in domestic violence shelters reported their pets injured or killed, and as many as 40 percent of domestic violence victims said they stayed in abusive homes for fear of what might happen to their pets.
The Safe Haven program places victims' pets in the care of trained foster families until they can work out new, safe, living arrangements.
Its challenge now is to make sure victims of domestic violence know there is shelter for their pets.
"These are my children. They're my babies," Hildebrandt said.
Two years ago, Hildebrandt left her abuser after she found an apartment that allowed dogs.
"If that wasn't an option, I wouldn't have left. There would be no way I would leave without them," Hildebrandt said.
She's now engaged to a man who loves her and Bella, Tucker, and her new puppy, Apollo.
Hildebrandt hopes others will get out of abusive relationships sooner knowing there's a program like Safe Haven.