By: Jennifer O’Connor
May, 28, 2011
Although legal definitions of animal abuse vary, it is a crime in every State, and many States have enacted laws establishing certain forms of cruelty to animals as felony offenses. The forms of abuse to which animals may be subjected are similar to the forms of abuse children experience, including physical abuse, serious neglect, and even psychological abuse. It has been said that violence begets violence, but what do we know about the nature of the relationship between the abuse of animals and aggressive behavior towards human beings? This paper describes psychiatric, psychological, and criminal research linking animal abuse to violence perpetrated by juveniles and adults. Particular attention is focused on the prevalence of cruelty to animals by children and adolescents and to the role of animal abuse as a possible symptom of conduct disorder. In addition, the motivations and etiology underlying the maltreatment of animals are thoroughly reviewed. The abuse of sentient creatures demands our attention. The research includes recommendations to curb such cruelty, while providing information for additional resources concerned with violence perpetrated against animals and people. It is my hope that the information that this paper offers will contribute to reducing both forms of violence. Introduction:
The past two decades have witnessed a resurgence of interest in the relation between cruelty to animals, or animal abuse, and serious violent behavior, especially among youthful offenders. As an illustration, a recent study by Verlinden (2000) of 9 school shootings in the United States (from Moses Lake, WA, in 1996 to Conyers, GA, in 1999) reported that 5 (45 percent) of the 11 perpetrators had histories of alleged animal abuse. The well-documented example was the case of Luke Woodham who, in the April before his October 1997 murder of his mother and two schoolmates, tortured and killed his own pet dog (Ascione, 1999). It is argued here that animal abuse has received insufficient attention—in fact, is sometimes explicitly excluded (e.g., Stone and Kelner, 2000)—as one of a number of “red flags,” warning signs, or sentinel behaviors that could help identify youth at risk for perpetrating interpersonal violence (a relation first noted in the psychiatric literature by Pinel in 1809) and youth who have themselves been victimized.
Defining Animal Abuse:
All 50 States have legislation relating to animal abuse. Most States categorize it as a misdemeanor offense, and 30 States also have instituted felony-level statutes for certain forms of cruelty to animals. However, legal definitions of animal abuse, and even the types of animals that are covered by these statutes, differ from State to State (Ascione and Lockwood, 2001). The research literature also fails to yield a consistent definition of animal abuse or cruelty to animals; however, the following definition captures features common to most attempts to define this behavior: “socially unacceptable behavior that intentionally causes unnecessary pain, suffering, or distress to and/or death of an animal” (Ascione, 1993). This definition excludes practices that may cause harm to animals yet are socially condoned (e.g., legal hunting, certain agricultural and veterinary practices). Because the status of a particular animal may vary from one culture to another, the definition takes into account the social contexts that help determine what is considered animal abuse. For the purposes of this review, the animals that are victims of abuse are most often vertebrates because this is the category of animals to which are attributed the greatest capacity for experiencing and displaying pain and distress. The forms of abuse to which animals may be subjected are parallel to the forms of child maltreatment. Animals may be physically or sexually abused, may be seriously neglected, and, some might argue, may...