A 1916 play Trifles was written by American journalist Susan Glaspell. It is a murder mystery based on a real event in Iowa at the turn of the century. A man is found strangled. The sheriff and a neighbour man search the house and outbuildings, can’t find anything. Their wives are there too. They are friends of the widow, who is also prime suspect. The women look around the areas that the men consider unimportant – the kitchen and sitting room where only women’s ‘trifles’ are kept.
In the widow’s sewing basket, they find a dead canary wrapped in a scrap of silk inside a fancy small box. Its neck had been wrung, strangled. Knowing the late husband had been a hard man who ruled his wife with an iron fist, they figure out what happened. They keep it to themselves.
The play is described as being about domestic violence and the subjugation of women. The clue is the dead canary. It is seen as symbolic of the husband killing his wife’s joy in singing, something she’d hoped for as a career or hobby when a young woman.
But an essays-for-sale site showed a paper that I think strikes an essential point about the canary. The little bird was her pet, her small bit of warmth in a cold household. In strangling the bird, her husband took away her friend and her comfort.
I learned about Trifles while searching for information on domestic violence after listening to a CBC Radio Living Out Loud documentary in May 2011. It was about AnimEscale (AnimEscape in English), a shelter run by a Quebec woman Nicole Messier. A former victim of spousal abuse, she and her new husband turned their home into a shelter for the animal victims of domestic violence. Sadly, Ms. Messier passed away in 2013. What she did should be emulated by women’s shelters everywhere.
Nicole Messier said she had stayed in her abusive situation longer than she would have if it had been just herself. She wouldn’t leave her dog and cat, and she couldn’t take them to the women’s shelter. She learned she wasn’t the only woman doing that. Seventy percent of women, she said, will not leave their abusive households if they can’t take their animals with them.
Ms. Messier worked with local women’s shelters to provide refuge for the pets. Women and children stayed in the women’s shelter, pets stayed in Nicole’s home. Dogs, cats, hamsters, birds, rabbits, goldfish – they were all welcome. For large animals like horses, she had farms who would board them.
While in the shelters, the humans and animals spent time together regularly. Violence too often is passed on to children, so she would be there to see how the animals acted towards the kids and vice versa. Animals can become afraid of or aggressive toward people they associate with abuse – usually men – so Ms. Messier’s husband worked with the pets to show them that not all men need be feared.
These remarkable people kept families protected and intact. Leaving an abusive situation is good for women and children, but how can you leave your pets? If you do so, what are you telling your kids about responsibility? And, in the absence of the wife and kids, probably the abuser is going to turn his attention to the animal if he hasn’t already. Unless their animals also find shelter, women might not leave to protect themselves. Nicole helped fill that huge gap in domestic violence prevention measures.
This was published on my St. Thomas Dog Blog July 15, 2011. I emailed Nicole and received a lovely reply with more information about her “mission”. It is under my name in ‘Comments’, July 19, 2011. Mission AnimEscale is on Facebook.