By the time Cee-Cee left her abusive ex-boyfriend for good this July, she'd been trapped in the dark for almost ten years.
"We weren't allowed to keep the windows open, we had to keep the shades and the blinds closed at all times," recalled the 37-year-old mother of three, who asked to use a pseudonym for fear the muscle-bound ironworker she said kept her a virtual prisoner for close to a decade might track her down. "We're so used to it that I get anxiety when the curtains are open, because for nine years that's the way it always had to be."
That level of control is as extreme as it is commonplace for survivors of domestic violence, which is now the leading force—ahead of drugs and mental illness, surging rents and rampant evictions—driving almost 17,000 people into New York City's roughly 60,000-strong homeless shelter system. But in one key way, Cee-Cee's story is different: when she fled, she took not just her three boys, but her two cats with her.
"The kids were very attached to them—we've had them since they were babies," she said of Buttons, an aging grey tomcat with a white neck and button nose, and Boots, a frisky two-year-old tabby her eldest son, now 16, bottle-fed from the time the kitten was just two weeks old. "They're a part of the family. Those are like my other two sons."
It's a sentiment that will be familiar to the owners of America's estimated 86 million pet cats, or its 78 million pet dogs for that matter. But the Brooklyn facility Cee-Cee and her family currently call home is one of precious few in New York City and just a few dozen nationwide that shelter humans and their furry family members together, despite the fact that pets often keep women leashed to their abusers.
"It's an impossible choice," said Nathaniel Fields, president and CEO of the Urban Resource Institute (URI), which runs shelters serving an estimated 1,600 people annually, among them the pet-friendly domestic violence refuge where Cee-Cee and her family live. "People aren't going to leave their pets [even when their lives are in danger]—we know this from Katrina, we know this from Sandy."
Instead, research suggests the animal becomes another weapon of control. According to one study cited by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, more than 70 percent of survivors with pets their animal was threatened, hurt or killed by their abuser. URI staff recalled a woman's ex calling to say he had her cat tied up in the microwave and would irradiate it if she didn't come home.
"Everyone is shocked to hear the statistic, but not surprised that if there's no shelters that take pets, [of course] this would be happening," said Jen Rice, 31, a microbiologist who manages business development at Harvard's school of public health by day and her cat Kyle's social media empire by night. Though Rice and her husband first fell in love with the same Ron Swanson-style mustache that made Kyle an Instagram star, it's his tragic backstory that transformed the cat-lebrity from a rescue-turned-meme into a feline financier of co-shelters like URI.
"When we went to pick him up [from a shelter in Indiana], they were like, 'isn't he crazy, and by the way, he witnessed a murder,'" Rice recalled, though she said she and her husband initially thought little of the revelation or the evidence sheet they found in his adoption folder. "We laughed it off because it sounded so crazy. The way it was presented to us, it kind of sounded not real."
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"It sunk in that this is a serious thing. It's not funny," Rice said of the murder, which was suspected of being a domestic violence fatality. "I started thinking about poor Kyle, who had been in this domestic violence household [where an Indiana man was arrested after reporting his wife's death, only to die in police custody] and it got me thinking about pets in general in domestic violence situations," which led her to the Urban Resource Institute.
Fans of the feline and his comical poses can now catnap on Kyle pillows and cuddle his white-whiskered likeness in plush, outfit their own furry friends in Kyle neckerchiefs, sip coffee from mugs emblazoned with his face or rep the cat-leberity on t-shirts. (Pet lovers can also send URIPALS families like Cee-Cee's a Kyle plush doll to cuddle for Christmas.) Kyle poses with pet products in sponsored posts that fund the shelters, as well as a national non-profit for pets called Red Rover.
"I didn't want to exploit my cat for monetary purposes," Rice said. "I don't need to keep the money, but I could donate it to this cause," in hopes of helping the as many as 48 percent of survivors who report staying with an abuser because of a pet, as well as the untold others like Cee-Cee who flee, only to come back for their animals.
"We would cry every time we would go visit," because Buttons was filthy and starving, Cee-Cee told me of her initial attempt to leave two years earlier. "Eventually, we just went back home. Things got worse."
Cee-Cee was never married to her abuser, had no children with him and no claim on the apartment they shared. After he forced her to give up her job—something experts now call economic abuse—she said the man violently enforced rules that kept her trapped alone in the apartment and even forbade her to call building maintenance when their bathtub stopped up, forcing the family to shower in bursts, or not wash a all. When the refrigerator broke last year, they survived on packs of Ramen noodles from Family Dollar, often the only thing CeeCee could afford when her tormenter disappeared—sometimes for days at a time—leaving just a few grubby bills to tide the family over.
"If I had three dollars or even five dollars, I had to make that last a few days because I didn't know when he would come home—or if he would come home," she said. "I think that was just it for me. We don't even have food and you want to put your hands on me?"
Cee-Cee hopes to move her family out of the shelter and into a cat-friendly apartment some time early next year. In the meantime, she's teaching her sons to cook for the holidays, just one more thing they weren't allowed to do when they lived in the dark.
"I'm looking forward to Thanksgiving," she said. "I'm looking forward to making a nice big dinner for the boys—and no fighting."
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