Supporting vet practitioners to recognise signs of domestic abuse in animals and their owners: a PhD student-business collaboration

Q&A with Mary Wakeham on the links between domestic abuse and animal abuse, developing and disseminate training resources to veterinary practices around the country and her experience of research/business collaboration.

The research – business partnership

In August 2020, Mary Wakeham – a PhD student in the Centre for Gender and Violence Research at the University of Bristol – was successful in bidding for an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Accelerating Business Collaboration (ABC) award.  Funded through the National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF), the awards seek to build the capacity and capability of social science doctoral students and early career researchers to engage with business.

Mary’s aim was to use her emerging PhD findings into the links between domestic abuse and animal abuse to develop and disseminate training resources to veterinary practices around the country.

To do this, she partnered with Dr Wendy Sneddon, Company Director of the Lodestone Lounge, a Business Coaching, HR and Recruitment Consultancy.  Wendy is also a qualified vet nurse and a Trustee for the Links Group.  The Links Group are an organisation who work to raise awareness about the relationships between the abuse of people and animals through support, training and inter-agency working.

Alongside her PhD research, Mary has founded the charity Refuge4Pets, who foster animals for victim-survivors of domestic abuse so that they can escape to safety before being reunited with their much-loved animals. Mary previously worked as an Independent Domestic Violence Advocate prior to starting her PhD.  The combination of Mary and Wendy’s knowledge and networks was therefore formidable!

The Principal Investigator for the project was Dr Natasha Mulvihill, Lecturer in Criminology and researcher in the Centre of Gender and Violence Research.  Her role was to support Mary as needed through the project.  Here, Natasha interviews Mary about the outcomes of the project and what she learnt.

Q&A

Mary, can you explain briefly the links between animal abuse and domestic abuse?

People often refer to animals as ‘family members’ and ‘best friends’, but for those experiencing domestic abuse, animals may provide their only source of comfort, companionship and love. Perpetrators may exploit this bond that someone has with animals and abuse those animals as a way to coerce and control their partner.

Animals experience similar types of abuse to human victim-survivors including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional/psychological abuse and neglect.  Some perpetrators may even kill animals as a way to hurt their partner and demonstrate their power in the relationship. 

And what does your PhD look at?

My PhD it titled, Animal Abuse as a Strategy of Coercive Control. I set out to explore how and why animals are abused in the context of domestic abuse and the implications for victim-survivors (animals and people). I was also interested in exploring the extent to which professionals are aware about the link between domestic abuse and animal abuse and how professionals respond to victim-survivors’ concerns about the welfare of animals.

What did you achieve over the ESRC-ABC project?

Our aim was to develop resources and training to increase veterinary practice managers’ knowledge about domestic abuse, both how it may present in animals and their owners, and how to support practice staff who may be affected.  Over the three-month collaboration period we produced:

  • a one-hour basic domestic abuse training for vet practice teams
  • a guidance document with basic information about the dynamics of domestic abuse, the link with animal abuse, how to spot the signs of abuse and how to support victim-survivors (animals and people)
  • a poster for vet practice staff rooms
  • a poster for vet practice waiting rooms
  • and a short animation to raise awareness about the link between domestic abuse and animal abuse

The resources that Wendy and I produced together are about to be distributed across 5000 vet practices in the UK.

What have been the unintended outcomes of the project?

This collaboration has opened up many new doors for me to talk about my research and awareness about the parallels between the abuse of people and animals. I have also been asked to comment on and provide information for policy and legislative changes.

Through the project, I have developed new professional relationships and have a collaboration in plan with Dogs Trust.  The Links Group have also asked me to join them to coordinate their research subgroup.

Looking back, why did the partnership with Wendy work so well?

Wendy brought to the collaboration expertise in HR and the issues and challenges that veterinary practices face.  I was able to apply my experience working in the field of domestic abuse as well as the new knowledge from my research which explores animal abuse as a strategy of coercive control.  We share a passion and determination for tackling domestic abuse and safeguarding people and animals.  It was a great combination of mutual knowledge and networks.

What were the challenges?

I think the main challenge is around building the relationship with your business partner at the start and having absolute clarity about what you are going to do and how you are going to work together. Once we had that clarity, the collaboration really started to blossom.  I have learnt so much from Wendy’s insight into how veterinary practices work.

Another big challenge at the end of the collaboration was ’signing off’ the resources, since by that point the key stakeholder group had grown quite large.  That was a key learning point for me and I will manage that process more efficiently in the future. But the benefit of that wide input was that we ended up with a quality set of resources, that will hopefully benefit many people and animals.

A final challenge was timing.  I think when you write a proposal, you tend to over-estimate what you can achieve in the timeframe and under-estimate how long things take.  The collaboration – originally funded August to November 2020 – overran with final resources not being signed off until late January 2021. And this at a time when I was about to submit my PhD…

So was it all worth it?

Absolutely!  Although the collaboration has come to an end it was just the start for me as it has helped me to get my research recognised and gain credibility as a researcher with practitioners. I now have lots of webinars in plan to continue to share my research findings.

And will people be able to see any of the resources that you produced online?

All of the resources will be available to members on the Links Group website www.thelinksgroup.org.uk.  If you have animals you may see a poster in your veterinary practice reception area.

Natasha and Mary would like to thank Business Engagement Coordinator Ruth Welters in the Social Sciences and Law Faculty for her invaluable support in drafting the application; research impact experts Eloise Meller and Nikki Hicks in the Research and Enterprise Directorate and Cath Pullinger in Finance Services, for their work and endless patience with us.

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