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A safe haven for all
Project ReNeWal opens shelter for the pets of abused women

CONYERS - Family pets are many times the forgotten victims of domestic violence and are often used as pawns by an abuser to leverage control over the household. When a victim flees a violent situation, animals are frequently left behind.

But now, victims of abuse in Rockdale, Newton and Walton counties who seek refuge at the local battered women's shelter also have a safe haven for their pets.

Through donations of money and materials, Tom Wargo, founder of Lawrenceville-based Daffy's Pet Soup Kitchen, constructed a kennel on the property of Project ReNeWal last week.

The 800-square-foot fenced area can hold up to 10 dogs and has three kennels and two dog runs.

Vickie Stevenson, executive director of Project ReNeWal, said the kennel is meant to be a temporary solution for families who need immediate help and have no place to take their pets.

"It depends on the situation," Stevenson said. "The children are already detached from so many personal things that they may not want to be separated from their pet."

All animals must be current on vaccinations before being allowed in the kennel. She said the shelter works with local veterinarians who will house pets for longer periods of time and help out with vaccinations.

Stevenson said family pets are often targets of abuse in violent homes.

"The abuser pretty much uses pets as a wedge," she said. "He'll say, 'If you don't do this, I'll break the dog's leg' or 'I'll kill your pet.' ... That's one of the main things we teach in domestic violence classes to law enforcement and other agencies because it's so common. ... It's a way of controlling other family members."

She said about once a month a family with a pet will seek shelter at Project ReNeWal.

"Normally we try to work with families to get a protective order so they can all go back home. We work with getting families back in their own environment as quickly as we can," she said.

On Oct. 23, staff and board members at Project ReNeWal dedicated the kennel to Pam Spencer, who was killed Nov. 6, 2007. Authorities said the murder was the result of a domestic argument, during which Spencer's live-in boyfriend, Rick Breedlove, shot and killed her at their Covington home before turning the gun on himself.

Spencer was devoted to saving animals and had fostered hundreds of dogs. When Spencer died, she had 14 small companion dogs in her home, including a blind poodle, a Chihuahua, pappilons, Pekingese and a hairless Chinese Crested. Most of the dogs had come to her due to some traumatic situation from which Spencer had rescued them. Spencer reportedly told friends that she was fearful of Breedlove, but didn't want to leave because he threatened to harm the dogs.

"I really want (people) to know, the only reason Pam didn't leave her house and save her life was because (the shooting suspect) had threatened the dogs. She told us if she left, he had told her he would hurt or kill the dogs. Pam literally gave her life so that her dogs would be safe," Spencer's friend, Sandra Gray, told the Citizen shortly after Spencer's death.

Wargo said the kennel he built for Project ReNeWal was the first he constructed at a battered women's shelter, but is part of his company's mission of helping people and their pets through difficult times.

Wargo has been in the construction business for 21 years, working on homes and with churches. He said he often came in contact with people in financial straits.

"You could see some of these people didn't have a lot of money, but they'd have dogs and cats," Wargo said. "I would see people deliver food and they would eat part of it and give the rest of the meal to their dog."

He started to bring pet food with him on jobs and then the idea of starting a charitable organization began to blossom in his mind.

So he opened Daffy's Pet Soup Kitchen, a nonprofit pet food bank and pet assistance program serving Gwinnett and surrounding counties.

"Once we got into the food bank and started really talking with people, we were finding so many things we never thought of before," Wargo said. "We thought, why not help the individual person before the dog goes to rescue? We're hearing from people that turn in dogs because they can't afford to feed or take care of them."

Now, he is working with homeless shelters in the Atlanta area to build kennels and with animal rescue organizations. He has also enlisted the help of a veterinarian who offers services at a discount.

"Our biggest thing is to try to keep families and their pets together, and the kennel at the shelter is just one more way," Wargo said.

For more on Daffy's Pet Soup Kitchen, visit www.daffyspetsoupkitchen.com. To learn more about Project ReNeWal, visit www.projectrenewalgeorgia.com. The 24-hour assistance line is 770-860-1666.

Aimee Jones can be reached at aimee.jones@rockdalecitizen.com.