Animal cruelty, especially the abuse of pit bulls in dog-fighting activities, has achieved a higher profile after the 2007 arrest of the National Football League star Michael Vick for running an illegal interstate dog-fighting business in Virginia. However, the pit bull is only the most publicized victim of a phenomenon that is now being addressed with a newborn vitality in the US: wanton cruelty toward animals. Before 1990, only six US states had criminal acts listed in their animal-cruelty laws; now 46 states do. In 2008, the ASPCA created the first Mobile Animal Crime Scene Investigation Unit, a veterinary hospital and forensic laboratory on wheels that travels around the country helping traditional law-enforcement agencies follow the evidence from dead or wounded animals back to their inflictors. Another significant reason for the increased attention to animal cruelty is a mounting body of evidence that a link exists between violent crimes such as wife and child abuse, rape and murder and animal cruelty. Under US federal and state laws, animal-cruelty issues were considered a peripheral concern and the province of local ASPCA and Humane Society organizations. However, that distinction is rapidly vanishing
The connection between animal abuse and such diverse problems as links between crime and human nature, and the behavioral manifestations of children who are likely to be violent as adults was recognized long ago. William Hogarth’s “The Four Stages of Cruelty” (1751) traces the life of the fictional Tom Nero. The first stage shows Tom torturing a dog. At the second stage, we see Tom beating his fallen horse. At the Third Stage, we reach “Cruelty in Perfection”, where Tom has murdered Ann Gill. Finally, in the “Reward of Cruelty,” Tom’s corpse, fresh from the gallows, is dissected at Surgeons Hall.
Since the late 1970s, the FBI has considered animal cruelty to be a possible indicator of future serial murder. This subject has become known as the “graduation” hypothesis1. The FBI originally documented the connection between cruelty to animals and serial murder following a study of 35 imprisoned serial murderers. The convicted murderers were asked questions regarding their childhood cruelty toward animals. More than half of the serial murderers admitted to hurting or torturing animals as children or adolescents. More than a decade later, Ressler2 completed another study examining this link between animal cruelty and serial murder. The authors discovered that a substantial number of the 28 convicted serial murderers in the study had engaged in animal cruelty. Of the offenders, 36 per cent had perpetrated animal cruelty as children, 46 per cent were cruel to animals as adolescents, and 36 per cent continued their abusive nature toward animals as adults. Anecdotally, as a boy, Jeffrey Dahmer impaled the heads of cats and dogs on sticks; Theodore Bundy, implicated in the murders of some three dozen people, told of watching his grandfather torture animals; and David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam,” poisoned his mother’s budgerigar.
In 1961, MacDonald3 developed a triad of childhood characteristics that could possibly indicate future aggression and even homicidal behavior in individuals. These indicators included persistent bed-wetting past the age of five, obsession with fire, and cruelty to animals. Since then, numerous studies have supported this relationship between childhood cruelty to animals and later violence against humans. For example, one-third of pet-owning victims of domestic abuse, reported that one or more of their children had killed or harmed a pet4; violent offenders are significantly more likely than nonviolent offenders to have committed acts of cruelty toward pet animals as children5; a childhood history of animal cruelty is significantly associated with antisocial personality traits and drug abuse while mental retardation, psychotic disorders, and alcohol abuse show no such association6; children who were cruel to animals were more than twice as likely as other children to be reported for violent crime as adolescents7; prison inmates who experienced animal cruelty at a younger age were more likely to demonstrate recurrent animal cruelty themselves8; pet abuse is one of five factors that predict which children would begin other abusive behaviors9; and children exposed to domestic violence are significantly more likely to have been cruel to animals than children not exposed to violence10.
Results suggest that animal abuse is a red flag indicative of family violence in the home. In a 2009 study, 60 per cent of participants (n=860) who had witnessed or perpetrated animal cruelty as a child also reported experiences with child maltreatment or domestic violence11. The link between animal abuse and interpersonal violence is becoming so well established that many US communities now cross-train social service and animal-control agencies in how to recognize signs of animal abuse as possible indicators of other abusive behaviors. In Colorado, veterinarians are mandated reporters of suspected child abuse and in Illinois of suspected elder abuse – they must notify the police if their suspicions are aroused by the condition of the animals they treat. California recently added Humane Society and animal-control officers to the list of professionals bound by law to report suspected child abuse and is now considering a bill in the State Legislature that would list animal abusers on the same type of online registry as sex offenders and arsonists.
Along with the need to track the physical evidence of animal cruelty there is the deeper and more complex challenge of analyzing its underlying causes and ultimate consequences. Early studies of the role of pets in a sample of families with a known history of child abuse, neglect or endangerment provided some of the first insights into both the prevalence of animal cruelty within child abusing families, and the dynamics of such abuse12. Although several authors had suggested that abuse of children and animals could coexist one of the first studies to validate this idea was that of Hutton13. He studied records in a small British community and reported that of 23 families known to the local RSPCA for animal abuse or neglect, 82 per cent were also known to local social service agencies and were described as having children at risk or with signs of neglect or physical abuse. In the US, researchers followed up on these findings by interviewing 53 middle-class New Jersey households that had been identified as having issues of child abuse14. In those families referred for reasons of physical abuse of children (rather than neglect or substance abuse), 88 per cent had instances of animal abuse. In more than 37 per cent of the households in which animal abuse was reported, children were involved in the abuse, but they were the sole abusers in less than 14 per cent of the homes. The researchers’ expectation going in was that such families would have relatively few pets given their unstable and volatile environments. They found, however, not only that these families owned far more pets than other households in the same community but also that few of the animals were older than two years. There was a high turnover of pets in these families – in fact pets were dying, being discarded or running away. Furthermore, in homes where there was domestic violence or physical abuse of children, the incidence of animal cruelty was 90 per cent. The most common pattern was that the abusive parent had used animal cruelty as a way of controlling the behaviors of others in the home.
The dynamic of animal abuse in the context of domestic violence is a particularly insidious one. As a pet becomes an increasingly vital member of the family, the threat of violence to that pet becomes a strikingly powerful intimidating force for the abuser: an effective way for a petty potentate to keep the subjects of his perceived realm in his thrall. In the Humane Society of the US’s public policy series on the state of animals, Lockwood15 focused on cruelty toward cats to underscore the dynamic of animal cruelty as a means to overcome powerlessness and gain control over others. He found cats are more commonly victims of abuse than dogs because dogs are, by their very nature, more obedient and eager to please, whereas cats are nearly impossible to control.
Whatever the particular intimidation tactics abusers use, their effectiveness is indisputable. Battered women are nearly 11 times more likely to report that their partner had hurt or killed pets than women who have not experienced intimate violence16. A 1997 US survey of shelters for battered women found more than 85 per cent of the shelters reported that women who came in described actual (as distinct from threatened) harm to pets; 63 per cent of the shelters reported the same for children17. In a separate 2003 study, over a fourth of battered women reported that concern for their pets had affected their decisions about leaving the batterer out of fear for the well-being of the family pet18. In response, many shelters across the US have now developed “safe haven” programs that offer refuges for abused pets as well as people, so that both can be freed from the cycle of intimidation and violence.
What cannot be so easily monitored or improved however is the corrosive effect that witnessing such acts has on children and their development. The 2007 AVMA US pet ownership and demographics sourcebook indicates more than 70 per cent of US households with young children have pets19. Human-animal bond research has revealed that a pet’s roles in a human being’s life are influenced by individual perception of the pet’s attributes. Psychologists classify pets as a developmental resource during preadolescence since it is perceived as a responsibility and a friend. For example, 7-to-10-year-old children named on average two pets when listing the 10 most important individuals in their lives20. When asked to whom they turn to when feeling sad, angry or happy nearly 50 per cent of 5-year-old children name their pets20. Perception of a pet is influenced by the demands of development and should change over time. However, exposure to animal abuse turns associations and life lessons that come from a child’s closeness to a pet into negative experiences.
Children who have witnessed human or animal abuse, or been victimized themselves frequently engage in what are known as “abuse reactive” behaviors re-enacting what has been done to them either with younger siblings or with pets. These children are also often driven to suppress their own feelings of kindness and tenderness toward a pet because they cannot bear the pain caused by their own empathy for the abused animal. In an even further perversion of an individual’s healthy empathic development, children who witness the family pet being abused have been known to kill the pet themselves in order to at least have some control over what they see as the animal’s inevitable fate. Those caught in such a vicious abuse-reactive cycle will not only continue to expose the animals they love to suffering merely to prove that they themselves can no longer be hurt, but they are also given to testing the boundaries of their own desensitization through various acts of self-mutilation. In short, such children can only achieve a sense of safety and empowerment by inflicting pain and suffering on themselves and others. Recent surveys of inmates in both medium and maximum-security prisons have indicated that the role of empathy during acts of animal cruelty is less important than concealing those acts21. Veterinarians are in a unique position to ferret out those individuals likely to move from animal abuse to human abuse, particularly child abuse.
However, researchers also realize that appropriate experiences with animals can provide a road back to empathy and compassion, and can be a powerful force for healing and a way of breaking the cycle of violence. Since 2000, the Humane Society of the US has been publishing a directory of animal-related programs violence prevention and intervention22. To date, one of the most promising methods for healing those whose empathic pathways have been stunted by things like repeated exposure to animal cruelty is having the victims work with animals. Children who tend to be completely unresponsive to human counselors and who generally shun physical and emotional closeness with people often find themselves talking openly to, often crying in front of, a horse – a creature that can often be just as strong-willed and unpredictable as they are and yet in no way judgmental, except, of course, for a natural aversion to loud, aggressive human behaviors. Equine-therapy programs, for example, are now helping an increasing number of teenagers who have severe emotional and behavioral issues, as well as children with autism and Asperger’s syndrome. At Aspen Ranch in Loa, Utah, troubled teenagers are being paired off with wild mustangs that have been adopted from the Bureau of Land Management, each species ultimately managing to temper the other, a dynamic that has also proved very effective in teaching patience and empathy to prisoners in correctional facilities. In the Los Angeles suburb of Compton, there is a youth equestrian program called the Compton Junior Posse. Teenagers clean stables, groom horses, and then ride them in amateur equestrian events across Southern California. There are now bovine- and elephant-assisted therapy programs as well.
As veterinarians, we are well suited to play a central role that helps to find creative approaches addressing violence in our society and provide healing that extends far beyond the animals in our care.
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