ORLANDO, Fla. – Hundreds of walkers, some with two legs and some with four paws, attended the eighth annual Paws for Peace Walk Saturday in Blue Jacket Park.
Both dogs and their humans walked alongside the News 6 team and officials with Harbor House of Central Florida in an effort to raise awareness about domestic violence and how pets can be also be victims.
Michele Sperzel, with Harbor House of Central Florida, said her team’s emergency shelter is the only facility in the area with an on-site kennel for pets.
"Oftentimes, animals in a family are the first victims, so we want to make sure the abuser doesn't have that control over the survivor or the animals themselves by keeping them safe,” Sperzel said.
Since the kennel opened in 2012, it has helped almost 200 families and more than 230 animals find safety.
Melanie Guy, who attended the walk, said Harbor House’s work is crucial to domestic violence victims.
“The families, they feel that the animals are their family too, so it's very important for them to be able to keep their pets with them," Guy said.
Jennifer Saaidi, who also walked Saturday, said she's a domestic violence survivor who relied on her dog Raven to help her leave her abuser.
"She's basically my emotional support right now to get through everything. She's been there since most of it,” Saaidi said.
News 6 teamed up with Harbor House to raise money to help cover veterinary costs and upgrades to the kennel and provide a safe place for survivors and their four-legged family members. Organizers said the community raised more than $35,000.
News 6’s Justin Warmoth and Erik Sandoval, who are both passionate about the cause, hosted the event Saturday.
“Statistics say that if they leave their pets behind, their pets are most likely going to be the next target in a situation like that. It's just heartbreaking. So the fact the Harbor House has this facility is amazing."
Saaidi said the resources offered by Harbor House are crucial for victims of domestic violence.
"This is what people need,” she said. “They need the support. They need somewhere to go, especially with their pets, because they're family."