Woman’s Best Friend

How Megan Senatori helps domestic abuse victims—and their pets—get to safety

Published in 2009 Wisconsin Rising Stars magazine

By Nyssa Gesch on November 16, 2009


In her second year at the University of Wisconsin Law School, Megan Senatori, currently a partner at DeWitt Ross & Stevens, went to a conference sponsored by Best Friends Animal Sanctuary and heard a story that altered her career. In northern Wisconsin, a woman who had sought refuge at a domestic abuse shelter told her caseworker that she received, from her husband’s mother, photos of her dog back home. The dog’s ears were being cut off by her husband with garden shears.

“She ended up leaving the shelter to go save her dog and that was the last that the caseworker heard of her,” Senatori says.

The woman’s case wasn’t unique. “[A] 1995 study of 72 women seeking refuge in domestic abuse shelters in Wisconsin found that 86 percent had pets and in 80 percent of those cases, the batterer abused the pets. So it’s really prevalent,” Senatori says. “They do it as a means of controlling the humans. It’s a great way to show, ‘If you don’t do what I’m going to tell you to do, this is what can happen to you.’”

Struck by the story, and the statistic that between 18 and 40 percent of women would’ve gone into shelter sooner if they’d had somewhere to take their pets, Senatori joined friend and colleague Pam Alexander, also a second-year law student, in researching programs that offer aid to both victims and pets. They didn’t find much. Wisconsin still only has three.

“Frankly, it never crossed my mind before,” Senatori says. “I just assumed—I don’t know what I thought—that you take your pet with you. But that’s not the practical reality of it.”

So despite juggling a full course load and a waitressing job, Senatori, with Alexander, founded the Sheltering Animals of Abuse Victims (SAAV) Program, which has placed 64 pets in foster care since 2003. Senatori is its president.

Using what Senatori calls a holistic approach, Domestic Abuse Intervention Services refers victims concerned for the safety of their pets to the SAAV Program, which, with the help of the Dane County Humane Society, finds temporary foster homes for the animals. “We wanted to make sure that the animals were cared for by people who knew how to care for animals,” Senatori says, “and that the human beings were cared for by people who understood all the dynamics of abuse and all the social issues.” Senatori estimates that, in their program, pets are reunited with owners 75 to 80 percent of the time.

The majority of Senatori’s practice is in complex civil litigation and appeals, but 10 percent, she estimates, involves animal law. Last June she even filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of 45 animal law professors from 50 different law schools, arguing that the prevention of animal cruelty is a compelling governmental interest.

“I can’t imagine ever being in a position where I had to choose between my own safety and the safety of someone I love—whether that’s an animal or a person,” Senatori says. “We don’t want anyone to have to make that choice.”

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