Cruelty to Animals: The First of Many Crimes?
Acts of cruelty to animals are not mere indications of a minor personality flaw in the abuser; they are symptomatic of a deep mental disturbance. Research in psychology and criminology shows that people who commit acts of cruelty to animals don’t stop there—many of them move on to their fellow humans.
Studies have shown that violent and aggressive criminals are more likely to have abused animals as children than criminals considered non-aggressive.(2) A survey of psychiatric patients who had repeatedly tortured dogs and cats found that all of them had high levels of aggression toward people as well.(3) According to a New South Wales newspaper, a police study in Australia revealed that “100 percent of sexual homicide offenders examined had a history of animal cruelty.”(4) To researchers, a fascination with cruelty to animals is a red flag in the lives of serial killers and rapists; according to the FBI’s Ressler, “These are the kids who never learned it’s wrong to poke out a puppy’s eyes.”(5)
Examples That Make the Headlines: Notorious Killers
History is replete with serial killers whose violent tendencies were first directed at animals. Albert DeSalvo, the “Boston Strangler” who killed 13 women, trapped dogs and cats and shot arrows at them through boxes in his youth.(6) Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer had impaled dogs’ heads, frogs, and cats on sticks.(7) Dennis Rader, the so-called “BTK” killer who terrorized people in Kansas, wrote in a chronological account of his childhood that he hanged a dog and a cat.(8) During the trial of convicted sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, a psychology professor testified that the teenager who killed 10 people with a rifle had “pelted—and probably killed—numerous cats with marbles from a slingshot when he was about 14.”(9)
The deadly violence that has shattered schools in recent years has, in most cases, begun with cruelty to animals. High-school killers such as 15-year-old Kip Kinkel in Springfield, Oregon, and Luke Woodham, 16, in Pearl, Mississippi, tortured animals before starting their shooting sprees.(10) Columbine High School students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who shot and killed 12 classmates before turning their guns on themselves, spoke of mutilating animals to their classmates.(11)
“There is a common theme to all of the shootings of recent years,” says Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, director of the Child Study Center at New York University. “You have a child who has symptoms of aggression toward his peers, an interest in fire, cruelty to animals, social isolation, and many warning signs that the school has ignored.”(12)
Sadly, many of these criminals’ childhood violence went unexamined—until it was directed toward humans.
‘The Link’ Next Door: Cruelty to Animals and Family Violence
Because abusers target the powerless, crimes against animals, spouses, children, and the elderly often go hand in hand. Children who abuse animals may be repeating a lesson learned at home; like their parents, they are reacting to anger or frustration with violence. Their violence is directed at the only individual in the family more vulnerable than themselves: an animal.
Parents who neglect or abuse an animal frequently subject their own children to similar hardships. Indiana residents Jade M. Jonas and Michael R. Smith faced felony charges stemming from authorities’ reported discovery of their two children and three dogs languishing in their filthy home. According to news sources, officials first found a tethered dog deprived of food and water outside the home. Upon entering the couple’s residence, investigators are reported to have found a 3-month-old boy lying near piles of feces, trash, and rotten food; a half-clothed toddler; and two additional dogs.(13) In another case, Illinois authorities found 40 parasite-ridden dogs languishing amid 6 inches of feces on property occupied by John Morris. According to news reports, officials responding to neighbors’ concerns found the sick and emaciated dogs confined to filthy animal carriers before confirming that three children, ages 3, 10, and 15, lived in the horrific conditions as well.(14)
Sixty percent of more than 50 New Jersey families being treated for child abuse also had animals in the home who had been abused.(15) In three separate studies, more than half of the battered women surveyed reported that their abuser threatened or injured their animal companions.(16) In one of those studies, one in four women said that she stayed with the batterer because she feared leaving the animal behind.(17)
Stephen Williams was charged with cruelty to animals, child cruelty, and aggravated assault in Georgia after allegedly hacking to death his wife’s puppy with an ax and threatening to decapitate her with the same weapon—all in front of three horrified children.(18) Scott Maust of Pennsylvania was charged with corruption of minors, making terroristic threats, and cruelty to animals after allegedly shooting his family’s dog with a .22-caliber firearm, ordering his four children to clean up the bloody scene, and threatening to kill them if they told anyone.(19)
Stopping the Cycle of Abuse
Schools, parents, communities, and courts who shrug off cruelty to animals as a “minor” crime are ignoring a time bomb. Instead, courts should aggressively penalize animal abusers, examine families for other signs of violence, and order perpetrators to undergo psychological evaluations and counseling. Communities must recognize that abuse to any living individual is unacceptable and endangers everyone .
Baltimore police who file domestic violence reports are required to note the presence and condition of animal companions. The Boston Police Department partners with the New England Animal Control/Humane Task Force to detect and respond to domestic violence associated with cruelty investigations. The New Jersey Coalition for Battered Women works with animal control to identify signs of domestic violence.
Additionally, children should be taught to care for and respect animals in their own right. After an extensive study of the links between animal abuse and human abuse, two experts concluded, “The evolution of a more gentle and benign relationship in human society might be enhanced by our promotion of a more positive and nurturing ethic between children and animals.”(20)
What You Can Do
• Urge your local school, law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, and judges to take cruelty to animals seriously. Those charged with protecting our communities and animals must send a strong message that violence against any feeling creature—human or nonhuman—is unacceptable.
• Be aware of signs of neglect or abuse in children and animals and immediately report suspected crimes to authorities. Take children seriously if they report that animals are being neglected or mistreated. Some children won’t talk about their own suffering but will talk about an animal’s.
• Don’t ignore even minor acts of cruelty to animals by children. Talk to the child and the child’s parents. If necessary, call a social worker.
- Animal abuse does not necessarily lead to interpersonal violence however, there is a need to come to a better understanding of the circumstances in which it does. Research to date has predominantly been conducted in the United States and the sample sizes have generally been small. There is an urgent need for further UK research. Meanwhile, the existing research findings which indicate a relation (often referred to as ‘the link’) between child abuse and animal abuse, should not be ignored.
- Violence against animals cannot be dismissed or treated as an isolated problem. Rather, acts of animal abuse should be considered within the context of a much wider picture of family violence. Consequently policies, service provision, and training should take account of the link.
- Closer collaborative working between child welfare and animal welfare organisations could make a positive contribution to the protection and welfare of children, families, and animals.
Although the past two decades have seen a resurgence of research into the links between how animals are treated and how people treat each other, the association has been acknowledged for centuries. For example, in 1705 the philosopher John Locke observed that cruelty to animals can lead to cruelty to human beings: “they who delight in the suffering and destruction of inferior creatures, will not be apt to be very compassionate or benign to those of their own kind” (Locke, quoted in Ascione and Arlow, 1999, p.197).The English artist William Hogarth (1697 – 1764) was the first artist to condemn animal cruelty and theorise on its human consequences (cited in Lockwood and Ascione, 1998, p.114) More recently, the anthropologist, Margaret Mead (1964) suggested that childhood cruelty to animals might be a precursor to anti-social violence as an adult.
Defining animal abuse is complex due to the existence of socially and culturally sanctioned activities which harm animals, differing attitudes toward members of different species and the continuum of severity that can range from teasing to torture. Ascione (Ascione and Arkow, 1999, p.51) defines it as “socially unacceptable behaviour that intentionally causes unnecessary pain, suffering, or distress to and/or the death of an animal”. He says animal maltreatment can include physical abuse and neglect, including acts of commission and omission, and sexual abuse that may involve bestiality. In common with definitions of child abuse, definitions of animal abuse vary across time, place, and societies.
Research over the past 30 years has begun to define and elucidate the possible relationship between child welfare concerns and animal cruelty. One of the first studies to validate the idea of a relationship between child and animal abuse was British. Hutton looked at all the cases of animal abuse that came to the notice of the RSPCA in one social services area in 1980. He found that out of 23 families participating in the study, 82% were also known to the social services department and 61% were known to the probation service. These families were described as having children at risk or there were indicators of neglect or physical abuse (Hutton, 1981). This study stimulated interest in America and consequently DeViney et al (1983) studied 53 families being treated by the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services for incidents of child abuse. In 88% of the cases animal abuse had also occurred. Two thirds of the pets were abused by fathers and one third were abused by the children. Furthermore, persons – including children – living in homes where pets were abused were ten times more likely to have been bitten or attacked by the abused pet.
Since the 1980s further research has been conducted, primarily in America . Unlike in Britain , America has humane societies and associations which are concerned with the protection of both animals and children which might explain why the research interest has flourished there as opposed to in Britain where welfare provision for children and animals have been traditionally compartmentalised and separated.
Six major themes emerge from research to date
- Animal abuse perpetrated by children
Aggressive acts against animals can be an early diagnostic indicator of future psychopathology, which, if unrecognized and untreated, may escalate in range and severity against other victims (Kellert and Felthous, 1985; Lockwood and Hodge, 1986, Frick et al., 1993). FBI research by Ressler et al (1988) found substantial rates of severe animal abuse in childhood and adolescence in a sample of serial sexual homicide perpetrators. The suspicion in some of this research is that animal abuse may be a form of rehearsal for human directed violence.
- Acts of animal abuse witnessed by children
Exposure to animal abuse desensitises children to violence (Ascione, 1993). This desensitisation may come through individual traumatic acts against animal companions, or through cultural conditioning ( Clifton , 1997).
- Acts of animal abuse in the context of domestic violence
Animals and children living in violent households may become victims of abuse themselves. Acts of animal abuse may be used in order to coerce, control, and intimidate battered women and their children to remain in, or be silent about, abusive situations (Ascione, 1998; Arkow, 1996; Firmani, 1997).
- Animal abuse as part of the continuum of family violence
Higher rates of animal abuse by parental figures have been found in substantiated cases of child physical abuse than in the general population (DeViney et al, 1983). Loar (1999) observed that animal abuse could be triggered by the same behaviours as child abuse. The need for high level of supervision, activity, noise, resistant or destructive behaviours and toileting accidents can trigger abuse of both children and animals in circumstances where the caregivers have difficulties in responding to these demands. These and other research findings have led to pioneers in this field to argue that animal abuse should not be regarded as an isolated incident with only an animal victim but rather as an unrecognized component of family violence (Ascione and Arkow, 1999).
- Therapeutic potential of animals to promote healing or enhance empathy skills
Abuse victims may find interactions with a family pet a source of comfort (Zimrin, 1986) and learning to touch pets appropriately may be a useful adjunct to therapy (Lew, 1988). Animal – assisted therapy and animal assisted activities are becoming more prevalent in the United States however, research to validate the effectiveness of these interventions remains in its infancy (Arkow, 1998).
- The role of animals in child development
Animal companionship can help children move along the developmental continuum and promote the development of resilience (Levinson, 1970, Gilligan, 2000). The death or loss of a pet can have a profound effect on children, particularly in adolescence and if they have no one to talk with about their grief (Levinson, 1967; Robin et al, 1983; Boat, 1999).
Bell (2001) suggests that while the existing research into the links provides some useful data, some of the findings must be treated with caution because of the problems with some of the research studies. For example:
- Defining animal abuse is complex and studies to date use different definitions.
- Information about animal abuse is most often derived from self reports by potential perpetrators – often there is a lack of corroborative evidence.
- Issues of under reporting – parents may be unaware of their children’s animal cruelty as animals may be abused secretively or adults may rely on children’s own accounts of animal abuse but may not have witnessed this happen. Evidence is also emerging from Scotland , that most vets acknowledge that animal abuse exits but many consider they are not trained to identify it (NSPCC and RSPCA, 2001, p.23).
- Young people may be reluctant to admit to acts of animal abuse for fear of the reaction of others.
- Research using clinical case histories may fail to uncover animal abuse not because it did not take place but rather because no one asked about it.
Recent UK research
Three recently published UK studies contribute to further understanding of the link:
- Piper (2001) completed a study in order to understand more about why people harm animals and the attitudes of children and young people. More than 1000 young people engaged with the research at some level. They conclude that the links between different forms of violence and future behaviour patterns will apply to some individuals (who are probably at the more severe end of the harming continuum) but that this is only a part of the picture. The majority of children said the reason they would harm a pet was either to retaliate because it had harmed them or for fun. They found that boys are more likely to harm animals than are girls. They conclude that education is the best way for RSPCA and others to effect change in children who harm animals.
- Bell (2001) conducted a survey to ascertain what, if any, resources or services were available for children and young people who are abusive to animals. Of 164 questionnaires returned, 56 per cent indicted they had provided services to children who had abused animals, with most services being provided by child and adolescent psychiatry. She found that no agency has a service or therapeutic intervention directed specifically towards children who abused animals. Bell (2001, p.232) concludes that given the increasing body of research which highlights the possible links that ‘it might be an opportune time for service providers to consider the inclusion of animal abuse in their risk assessment instruments’.
- Cawson et al (2000) undertook a study of 2,869 young people aged 18-24 years across the UK in order to ascertain the prevalence of child abuse and neglect. Among the many questions posed they asked respondents if they had experienced ‘proxy attacks’ that is threats or attacks on pets or on treasured possessions. Cawson and colleagues found that 2% had experienced a pet being got rid of or put to sleep even though it was healthy.
Recent UK developments
Child welfare and animal welfare organisations are starting to take account of the growing body of research on this subject and the implications for policy and practice. Paws For Kids operates a pet fostering scheme for women who are seeking refuge following domestic violence. In 2001, NSPCC and RSPCA jointly organised a conference to increase awareness of the links and explore their meaning for policy, practice and training. Intervet UK limited are hosting a conference in November 2001, to explore the links between child abuse, domestic violence and animal abuse.
Cross-reporting schemes, where there is a police, RSPCA and social services protocol for the sharing of concerns about children or animals, are being piloted in several parts of England and in Tayside in Scotland . However, no published evaluation of these initiatives is as yet available. Some Area Child Protection Committees are beginning to consider the issue of the links however, RSPCA representation on ACPCs has yet to become established.
1) Daniel Goleman, “Experts See Parallels Between Dahmer, Previous Serial Killers,” New York Times News Service, 11 Aug. 1991.
2) Sara C. Haden and Angela Scarpa, “Childhood Animal Cruelty: A Review of Research, Assessment, and Therapeutic Issues,” The Forensic Exami ner 14 (2005): 23-33.
3) Alan R. Felthous, M.D., “Aggression Against Cats, Dogs and People,” Child Psychology and Human Development 10 (1980), 169-77.
4) “Animal Cruelty; Common in Many Killers,” Sunbury Macedon Regional 26 Apr. 2005.
5) Ruth Larson, “Animal Cruelty May Be a Warning. Often Precedes Harm to Humans,” The Washington Times 23 Jun. 1998.
6) Andrea Vance, “10-Year-Old Luke Kicked a Lamb to Death Like a Football,” News of the World ( U.K. ), 23 Jan. 2005.
8) Tim Potter, “BTK Describes His Own Crimes,” The Wichita Eagle 16 Jul. 2005.
9) Paul Bradley and Kiran Krishnamurthy, “Right and Wrong ‘An Illusion’/Psychologist Who Met With Malvo Said Teen’s Disorder Limited His Moral Judgment,” Richmond Times Dispatch 9 Dec. 2003.
10) Deborah Sharp, “Abuse Will Often Cross Species Lines,” USA Today 28 Apr. 2000.
11) Mitchell Zuckoff, “Loners Drew Little Notice,” Boston Globe 22 Apr. 1999.
12) Ethan Bronner, “Terror in Littleton : The Signs; Experts Urge Swift Action to Fight Depression, Isolation and Aggression,” The New York Times 22 Apr. 1999.
13) “Police Remove Children From Filthy House,” Associated Press, 17 Jun 2005.
14) John H. Croessman, “Filthy Find,” Du Quoin Evening Call 8 Dec. 2004.
15) Elizabeth Deviney et al ., “The Care of Pets Within Child Abusing Families,” International Journal for the Study of Animal Problems 4 (1983): 321-9.
16) David Crary, “Program Links Domestic Abuse, Pets,” Associated Press, 11 Mar. 2001.
18) “Man Accused of Killing Puppy With Ax as Children Begged Him to Stop,” Associated Press, 17 Nov. 2003.
19) “Man Charged With Threatening Children Over Dead Family Dog,” Associated Press, 28 Feb. 2004.
20) Stephen R. Kellert and Alan R. Felthous, “Childhood Cruelty Toward Animals Among Criminals and Noncriminals,” Human Relations 38 (1985): 1113-29.