Michelle Sperzel has heard her share of horror stories from the victims of domestic violence who seek shelter at Shelter House in Fort Walton Beach.
One of the most recent was a woman who came to the shelter who worried the whole time that her abuser would harm her animals. When she finally called home one day to check on them, while she was on the phone, her abuser fired a gun and she could hear her dogs in the background. She knew he had either wounded or killed her pets, and in a state of panic, she left the shelter.
Another woman's abuser held a hair dryer up to her cat's skin until it burned it and the cat was crying out in pain.
Another woman told of watching her puppy being beat to death with a pipe by her abuser.
"In all domestic violence, abuse of animals and humans go hand in hand," explained Sperzel, executive director of the shelter. "The first abused are the animals and abusers will use the animals to intimidate their human victim."
Some women won't leave an abusive situation because of their pets, which are like their children.
On many occasions, pets are surrendered to animal shelters such as Alaqua Animal Refuge by the owner to get the animal out of the situation so it won't be killed or abused.
Alaqua has seen many of these incidences, said Alaqua founder and director Laurie Hood.
In answer to the predicament of what to do about the pets in an abusive situation, Shelter House is set to become the first shelter in the state to go pet friendly. Its planned Purple Paws project will give the shelter three dog kennels, a cat house and dog run so that women in abusive situations no longer have to choose between their pets and their own personal safety. Once built, those who flee to the shelter can take their pets with them.
Groundbreaking is scheduled for January for the project, and the first paws will be accepted, hopefully by April.
While most of the cost of construction has a benefactor thanks to the Dugas Foundation, there will be upkeep and other incidental costs to take care of.
To bring attention to the deplorable situation of abused pets and humans, and raise funds to help in the care of the abused animals and individuals, Alaqua and Shelter House are joining forces to present the second annual Share the Shelter, a benefit concert at Gulf Place.
Gates will open at 11 a.m. today for the concert with lawn seating. The concert starts at noon. Nine musicians will perform, including Chris Alvarado, Heritage, Bryan Kennedy, and Geoff McBride.
Tickets are $25 for lawn seating, with food and beverage available for purchase. Or, VIP tickets are available for $125 which includes roped interior seating, and an all-you-can-eat all-day buffet from a variety of restaurants. Outside food and beverages are not allowed.