Wild about animal mistreatment

by The Listener / 14 February, 2013
Children who’ve been exposed to domestic violence are more likely to be cruel to animals.
Wild about animal mistreatment

We probably all know people who don’t understand why advertisements for animal charities compete with those seeking support for famine-struck children and kids in poverty. Why don’t we just take that money and spend it on someone worthwhile?

I’m not wild about mistreatment of people, or animals for that matter, so I wasn’t thrilled by the television news footage of someone using a boat to run down black swans and laughing about it. And I think this has to be taken seriously and not laughed off as a bit of “harmless” fun, because there is good reason to believe that being mean to animals goes hand in hand with being mean to people.

Eco-feminist Carol Adams writes in The Sexual Politics of Meat that as long as humans continue to subordinate animals, then humans will continue to subordinate other humans. She draws a historical parallel with slavery, racism and, yes, sexism. Think how many animal-related words there are for women: chick, cow, cougar, filly … the list goes on.

But what does the actual science show? There has been a fair bit of research looking at the link. Among “normal” people, for example, young adults with a history of animal abuse are more likely to indicate histories of bullying other people, and also report more criminal behaviour. Female animal abusers (in particular) are also less likely to be able to take others’ perspectives.

Unsurprisingly, according to my stereotype, anyway, women with violent partners are far more likely (more than 10 times) to have male partners who have hurt or killed pets, and who threaten harm against their pets. Sadly, as children are good at modelling adult behaviour, those who’ve been exposed to domestic violence are also much more likely to be cruel to animals. A majority of people who have either witnessed animal cruelty or been abusive to animals have themselves been the victims of childhood maltreatment or abuse. What a vicious cycle.

Bullying and threatening pets doesn’t sound too serious, does it? Well, let’s look at people whose behaviour lands them in prison. In at least one US study, owning “high-risk” dogs (dogs known to be aggressive) predicted more criminal offending. Inmates typically report lots of childhood exposure to animal-focused violence, but they’re not the only ones.

Among people jailed for serious violent crime, about a fifth reported abuse out of hatred for the animal, which is less than the quarter engaging in animal cruelty because they were angry or imitating others, and a near two-thirds just for the fun of it.

In this study, the best predictor of recurrent violence towards people was – you guessed it – a history of recurrent animal cruelty.

It’s not just violence, either. Animal abusers might be more likely to be interpersonally violent, but also more broadly criminal – engaging in property, drug and public-disorder offences.

Animal cruelty was added in 1987 to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder as a “symptom” of conduct disorder (a kind of childhood antisocial personality), and since the 70s, the FBI has identified childhood animal cruelty as a warning flag for future serial murder.

Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer started collecting roadkill at age 10, before graduating to more active pursuit of animal victims. Ultimately, he went on to perpetrate the same sorts of atrocities on human victims as it transpired he had visited on animals when he was an adolescent.

What’s the missing link, the smoking gun, the dodgy metaphorical connection? On the one hand, psychology is not one-size-fits-all, meaning that there is never one culprit, but I’d be amazed if empathy wasn’t a big part of this particular puzzle. Serial killers and, it transpires, people who abuse animals, find it harder to imagine themselves in their victim’s shoes (as it were).

So, yes, maybe thinking about animal welfare helps us all in the long run.
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