Anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “One of the most dangerous things that can happen to a child is to kill or torture an animal and get away with it.”
Pets are part of the family in the majority of American households — nearly three-quarters of families with school age children have at least one companion animal. Pets are often treated like members of the family, but if the family is experiencing violence, they can become targets as well. Animal abuse can be linked with other forms of domestic abuse and with criminal behavior in later years.
Because domestic abuse is directed toward the powerless, animal abuse, child abuse and domestic violence often go hand in hand. Violence against one family member, including the family pet, rarely involves a single act of abuse. The victims share common traits — often women, children and animals have relationships with their abusers that are characterized by economic dependence, strong emotional bonds and an enduring sense of loyalty.
Studies by child protection and social service agencies in the northeast show that more than 80 percent of families being treated for child abuse were also involved in animal abuse. In two-thirds of the cases the abusive parent killed or injured the pet. Sadly, in one-third of the cases, the child victim continued the cycle of violence by abusing a pet, often using them as a scapegoat for their anger.
Animal abuse is just one step in a cycle of violence. Children who live in abusive homes commit cruel acts upon animals as a way of exercising their anger at being abused. This anger grows, and the abuse continues, until the child lashes out against humans.
Recognizing how important it is to take cruelty to animals seriously can be a first step in ending the cycle of violence and to saving lives.
Animal abuse is not just the result of a minor personality flaw in the abuser, but a symptom of a deep disturbance. Cruel and abusive acts toward animals have long been recognized as indicators of a violent behavior that does not confine itself to animals. Albert Schweitzer, the great humanitarian, wrote, “Anyone who has accustomed himself to regard the life of any living creature as worthless is in danger of arriving also at the idea of worthless human lives.”
Studies have now convinced sociologists, lawmakers, law enforcement officials and the courts that acts of cruelty to animals deserve our attention. They can be the first sign of a violent pathology that will ultimately include human victims. Murderers very often start out by killing and torturing animals as kids.
A police study in Australia revealed that 100 percent of sexual homicide offenders examined had a history of animal cruelty. The deadly violence that has shattered schools in recent years has, in most cases, begun with cruelty to animals.
The FBI believes animal cruelty to be one of the predictors of violence and considers past animal abuse when profiling serial killers.
A study by Northeastern University found that 70 percent of all animal abusers have committed at least one other criminal offense and that 40 percent had committed violent crimes against people. They also found that people who abused animals as youths were five times more likely to commit violent crimes.
History is replete with examples: Patrick Sherrill, who went postal and killed 14 coworkers and then himself; Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler who killed 13 women; Carroll Cole, who killed 35; Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer; and even the young Columbine High School students who killed 12 classmates all had histories of cruelty to animals.
We must take cruelty to animals seriously. Laws must send a strong message that violence against any feeling creature is unacceptable. We must take children seriously if they report animals being neglected or mistreated; some children won’t talk about their own suffering, but will talk about an animal’s. We mustn’t ignore even minor acts of cruelty to animals by children.
Schools, parents, communities, and courts who shrug off animal abuse as a “minor” crime are ignoring a time bomb. Instead, our community should be aggressively penalizing animal abusers, examining families for other signs of violence, and requiring intensive counseling for perpetrators. We must recognize that abuse to any living being is unacceptable and endangers everyone.
The evolution of a more gentle and benign relationship in human society as a whole, might be enhanced by our promotion of a more positive and nurturing ethic between children and animals. Children must be taught to care for and respect animals in their own right. By doing this, we can break the cycle of violence.