Gimme Shelter Ahimsa House Goes Above and Beyond the Material to Deliver the Impossible: Peace of Mind
Photos courtesy of Ahimsa House
“Ahimsa House,” Jill said in a soft but impassioned voice as she dabbed away at the tears on her cheeks, “is the greatest gift for all the women that are survivors of domestic violence.” She paused, and the silence was deafening as she stared ahead. “They reach out and do more than they could ever imagine. I am forever grateful, and will do whatever I can to help them out.”
Her words rang in the pause that followed, and I felt chills as I swallowed back tears of my own. It had been just a little over a week since I sat down with Shannon and Samantha at Ahimsa House’s offices to conduct an initial interview. After meeting — and cuddling — one of their “ambassadogs,” a tiger-striped Catahoula mix named Diego, sharing a few laughs at his antics, and listening to them talk about the overwhelming amount of work they do throughout the state, Shannon offered to set up an appointment with a former client of Ahimsa House who had recently escaped a domestic violence situation with only her life and two of her three cats.
I jumped at the chance, mentally preparing myself for how difficult it would be to hear her story, but strengthened by the words Shannon shared when asked how she and the team get through the darkest days: “The greatest gift is knowing people are safe. Knowing people are surviving and thriving, and really just knowing that, at the end of the day, I’ve done what I can, and if one person is helped, that’s more than enough.”
Ahimsa House was founded in 2004 by Emily Christie, a survivor of domestic violence. While she found safety at a women’s shelter, her cat wasn’t able to stay at the shelter with her, so she left her companion with a friend. By the time Emily left the shelter, her cat had run away from its temporary home, never to be found.
“She decided that it’s not an option any longer,” Shannon explained. “She decided that people needed to be safe and their pets needed to be safe, so she created Ahimsa House. We were initially an actual shelter, where we housed pets in Fulton County, until 2006, but then it became really overwhelming. We served the whole state of Georgia, and [Emily] was basically doing most of it by herself. Then an illness ran rampant in her shelter, and it was really hard to keep everyone healthy, and to get pets in from everywhere, so she decentralized in 2006 and created what we have now, which is a decentralized program. We don’t have a shelter; all of our pets are in boarding facilities, vet’s offices, and foster homes throughout the state. We’re able to do that and serve any kind of pet, anywhere in the state, at any time.”
If that task in itself isn’t large enough, Ahimsa House also provides veterinarian care and pays pet deposits to help the victims get out of the shelter and into homes. “That’s really increased our reunification rate, and helped people be able to get them back, because we’re removing a huge barrier for them that, normally, they wouldn't be able to meet,” Shannon said happily.
While Shannon and Samantha were modest about the work they did, Jill struggled to verbalize exactly what Ahimsa House’s program meant to her. When she escaped, after her spouse poisoned and killed one of her three cats, she was initially unable to take her beloved pair with her. But after she found refuge, she knew she had to go back for them. “That’s how important they are. I mean, they were my life. My friends kept telling me, ‘No, no, just save yourself.’ I said, ‘I have to. They’re mine. I need them.’
“My veterinarian understood the situation, and he kept my cats for a while. I ended up in a domestic violence shelter for women, a safe place, so I couldn't be found, because things were very dangerous. The cats were always on my mind. I would try to go visit them, but so much was happening to me, and it was so hard to balance everything with all that I was going through. He kept them for a few weeks, and then one of the staff members at the shelter mentioned Ahimsa House.”
Despite her initial reticence and fear for her cats’ safety, the staff member encouraged her to reach out. “I filled out the paperwork, and I didn't even realize until Shannon talked to me how long it’d been since I’d seen my cats. I mean, I hadn’t seen them since August. So I signed the paperwork finally because I realized I had so much on my plate, and I needed time for myself, but I needed someone to take care of my cats, because they were my life, you know? I was still having difficulties, because I hadn't been with them for so long, but they took them and they made me feel good right from the start. I knew they were gonna be in a good place and they’d be taken care of, and I could concentrate on what I needed to do for me.”
“Every week, Judy would call to tell me what they’re up to. Like, one week, I was really sad. I was crying, because it was Misty’s birthday, and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe this. Tomorrow is Misty’s birthday. I’m just so happy that you called today.’ And Judy said, “Well, we’re gonna make sure Misty gets extra treats. We’re gonna have a little party for him,’” Jill went on to say. “I just thanked her a million times because it was so unbelievable. Then the day that I had finally gotten [my apartment], there happened to be a mix up when I was making the arrangements for them to pick up my cats. I got a call from Zach, telling me that they were at the meeting place with the cats, and I told him that I was going to sign the lease. I go, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I was just — I was shaking. I asked if Judy could bring them to the apartment, because it was only a few miles away, and she did. I couldn't even write down the address; the women who helped me get the apartment had to do it.
“Judy went the extra mile for me,” Jill said. “She showed up, she had Misty and Raja, and she had all of these things for them! I don't have very many belongings, but they had cat food and litter boxes and toys and treats, and all these things I hadn't had a chance to get, and all I could do was hug her and hug her and hug her and cry.” She paused again, swiping at the tears running down her face. “What was so weird was that it was like three months to the day — to the hour — that my one cat had passed, and we were all back together. They did such an awesome job, and they do so much.”
“What amazes me is that an organization like this concentrates on women of domestic violence, what you’re going through, and how difficult it is to be in a position where you really can’t care for the ones you love: your pets,” Jill continued. “And to stand up and pour out so much attention and love is unbelievable. They gave me the opportunity to focus on what I was going through. It was peace of mind, and it allowed me to focus.”
Ahimsa House’s deep understanding of the connection between victims of domestic violence and their pets is behind everything they do. “The issues are intertwined,” Samantha explained to me as we sat in their office. “Animals can be used as a tool for the abuser to maintain power and control over their victim. They could hurt the pet, which is very emotionally painful for the victim. There’s a lot of different things that they could do, and the pet witnesses a lot of scary things.”
“In our program, the pets and clients aren't allowed to see each other during their time with us, just to keep everybody safe and everything confidential,” Shannon added. “We expected a lot of pushback on that, but when interviewed, all of them were just relieved that their pet was being taken care of, and they could really focus on themselves. For a lot of them, it’s the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a goal for them. We had a client who was actually run over by her abuser and in physical rehab for a year. She said the only reason she didn't give up was because she wanted her dogs back, and she wanted to be with them.
“It’s something we see a lot; it’s the reason they keep fighting. It’s the reason they leave. We have a lot of victims now who, when their pets are abused, they walk out. That’s it for them. So it’s a pretty deep connection. These pets are protecting them when they’re being abused, they’re protecting children. They’re the only non-combative living being in the home, most of the time, so it’s their only refuge.”
Jill echoed Shannon’s words as she expressed her joy at being reunited with her cats. “When the cats and I came up to the apartment for the first time together, I let them out of the cage, and they just started purring and purring. I mean, they were so happy, and we just snuggled up on the floor. It was like nothing had ever happened. They were loved so much — they were loved so much! There was no trauma. They were taken care of so well. The work [Ahimsa House] does is just so important. Like I said, I couldn't give [the cats] the care that they could give at that time. They gave me the opportunity to work at trying to find a safe place to live and to try to get through things. They were safe. I didn't have to worry about them.”
And while Ahimsa House does offer material gifts to the survivors, in care baskets full of toys, treats, food, and bedding, they do more than that: they offer peace of mind and safety to those who need it most. Shannon and Samantha, however, recognize that their work is just beginning. They’ve already served almost two thousand pets, from dogs and cats to horses and bearded dragons, in 138 of the 159 counties in Georgia, but their partnership with GA Gives goes a long way in helping them blaze forward. “Seeing so many supportive souls in one area, it’s like a safe place,” Shannon said. “A happy place of people who just want to help, even if they have nothing but time.”
“But we definitely need volunteers,” Samantha added. “We need fosters, especially over the holidays, and transport volunteers. We need a lot of donations, monetarily and supply-wise.”
“We try to keep our overhead low, so we don’t really purchase [supplies] unless we have to. We always accept [pet supplies], carriers…anything you would need for your pet, we need for ours. We’ll ask for anything and take anything, because we need all the help we can get. And I think giving feels good in general,” Shannon went on to say. “With this, you’re helping Ahimsa House, you’re helping victims of domestic violence, you’re helping pets. You’re helping everyone in your community, and you’re saving lives. You’re allowing people to escape sooner and more easily.”
“I never knew of them before,” Jill finished. “But I am forever grateful for what they’ve done. I mean, people were saying, ‘Oh, it’s just an animal,’ but they were — they are — so important. They’re part of me, and that’s what this organization realizes.”