the violence connection

biteyOne of the most dangerous things that can happen to a child is to kill or torture an animal and get away with it. – Anthropologist Margaret Mead

The link between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence is now well recognised.  Perpetrators of domestic violence often harm or threaten pets as a means of control.  Many murderers and serial killers have childhood records of animal cruelty.

Violent acts are reinforced, since the murderers either are able to express rage without experiencing negative consequences or are impervious to any prohibitions against these actions. Second, impulsive and erratic behavior discourages friendships, increasing isolation…there is no challenge to the offenders’ beliefs that they are entitled to act the way they do” (Ressler in Scott 2000). Torturing animals and setting fires will eventually escalate to crimes against fellow human beings, if the pattern is not somehow broken. Torturing animals is a disturbing red flag. Animals are often seen as “practice” for killing humans. Ed Kemper buried the family cat alive, dug it up, and cut off its head. Dahmer was notorious for his animal cruelty, cutting off dogs heads and placing them on a stick behind his house. (Scott 2000)

The evidence linking animal abuse perpetrated as a child and serial killers is compelling. FBI and Scotland Yard recognize that violence towards animals is one of five key indicators of a person who will commit violent acts against people.

Animal abusers often suffer from low self-esteem, a history of family abuse, frustration and an inability to manage anger. Childhood cruelty may provide a child with a sense of power and mastery over animals. Typical factors are revenge, retaliation, intimidation, deviant arousal or peer pressure. In one American study, 118 out of 135 criminals, including robbers and rapists, admitted that when they were children, they had burned, hanged and stabbed domestic animals. 78% of 63 people charged with animal cruelty had also been charged with violence or threats of violence against people (Jim McIsaac, Winnipeg Police Services, 1999).

However, there is less correlation of animal abuse with mass murders like Martin Bryant who slayed 35 people at Port Arthur in Tasmania in 1999, or the many college killings of recent years in the US. Mass murders are often the product of a series of events seeming to conspire against the perpetrator, against which he has felt powerless, culminatng in an explosion of retribution. Psychiatrist Professor Paul Mullen identifies the ‘mass murderer’ as “typically young, male and isolated, and usually has experienced some loss of face or humiliation” (Mullen 1997). However, in the Western world , he said, multiple killings usually occurred within domestic situations, typically where a depressed or morbidly jealous male killed his partner and children, then committed suicide.

Serial killers act not in anger, but with forethought and often plan their crimes over a sustained period. They are emotionally dulled, and often perceive others as less-than-human so not deserving compassion – which in any case they are often unable to give not having learnt it as children. They are frequently unrepentant about their crimes. Indeed their prime motivation seems to be possession of and complete power over the victim. Mike DeBardeleben, a sadist who is spending the balance of his days in prison for crimes as various as counterfeiting and rape-abduction, possession meant a live victim, suffering under his control. DeBardeleben wrote in his private journal: “There is no greater power over another person than that of inflicting pain on her, to force her to undergo suffering without her being able to defend herself. The pleasure in the constant domination over another person is the very essence of the sadistic drive.”

While the actions of serial killers are extreme, violence tends to run on a continuum and percursor events that make violence an accepted way of acting contribute to further violent acts. Witnessing, being a victim of and then perpetrating violence tend to follow if the cycle is not broken. Domestic violence is often treated as a separate issue from animal cruelty, despite the recognised connections. Many women cite fear for their pets (as well as their children) as a barrier to escaping a violent relationship. In one survey in Wisconsin as many as 88% of women fleeing a violent situation to a women’s shelter said their partner had inflicted violence on thier pets and often these acts were carried out in front of the children.

The Humane Society U.S. and the RSPCA in Australia both now recognise the need to recognise childhood cruelty to animals as a precursor to human violence later in life. [5] Stopping childhood violence towards animals is now seen as a way to prevent domestic violence in adulthood. So too many animal welfare agencies offer pet care programs or pet-friendly accomodation for women seeking to leave an abusive situation.

Humane Society US | RSPCA Australia | RSPCA UK

National Institute of Mental Health: Children and Violence


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