Animal Cruelty: Animal Abuse As Dirty Play

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Animal Abuse as Dirty Play
Arnold Arluke
Northeastern University

Animal abuse by children is generally regarded as an impulsive psychological act without instrumental bene t. This research takes a sociological approach to the topic, exploring the deliberate harm of animals as a particular kind of unsavory or dirty play that is part of adolescent socialization. Interviews were conducted with twenty- ve college undergraduate students who admitted to abusing animals earlier in their lives. Respondents considered their prior acts a form of everyday play having serious and thrilling overtones. At a deeper level, their abuse was an extraordinary form of play in that they also were appropriating adult culture. Because their appropriations stemmed from a wider culture racked with inconsistencies about the proper treatment of animals, respondents’ presentations of self were split between those who no longer spoke of abuse as fun and admonished themselves for having done this and those who still clung to the idea that harming animals was fun and were seemingly untroubled by their former acts.

Until recently, understanding violence toward animals remained the sole province of psychologists and animal welfare advocates (e.g., Ascione and Arkow 1999). Their approach sees animal abuse as an impulsive act that re ects psychopathological problems in the offender. In one typical psychiatric study (Tapia 1971), the author suggests that children who are cruel to animals suffer from hyperactivity, short attention span, irritability, temper, destructiveness, and brain damage leading to poor impulse control. Like enuresis and re setting, animal cruelty indicates one more sign of “impulsive character development” (Felthous 1980:169). As such, the act of abuse has no social context and is likened to angry or irritable aggression that provides an emotional and perhaps rewarding release to aggressors. From a psychological perspective, animal abuse provides sought after emotion and reward for two reasons. One argument holds that animal abuse serves to displace frustration by making the aggressor feel better. The displacement approach to abuse sees it as serving no purpose other than hurting animals and venting anger. In fact, until recently mental health experts supported the therapeutic value of mundane animal abuse as a “healthy” form of displacement. Psychologists argued that Direct all correspondence to Arnold Arluke, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, 500 Holmes Hall, Northeastern University, Boston, MA 02115-5000; e-mail: ProfArluke@aol.com.

Symbolic Interaction, Volume 25, Number 4, pages 405–430, ISSN 0195-6086; online ISSN 1533-8665. © 2002 by the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction. All rights reserved. Send requests for permission to reprint to: Rights and Permissions, University of California Press, Journals Division, 2000 Center St., Ste. 303, Berkeley, CA 94704-1223.

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Symbolic Interaction

Volume 25, Number 4, 2002

dogs, in particular, could serve as “satisfactory victims” for children, in need of power, to harm. “The child who is commanded all day long may be commander over his dog. The child who is full of resentment over what he believes is his bad treatment by adults may kick at his dog. Though this use of a dog, if carried to extremes, is not exactly commendable, there is some therapeutic effect for children when indulged in within reason” (Bossard and Boll 1966:128). A second, increasingly common psychological approach to abuse posits an “angry child” with “destructive energy” that needs to be released. Unlike the displacement model that sees abuse as a safety valve to reduce internal pressure and further aggression, the graduation model argues that attacks on animals represent early stages of a progression of aggressive responses that mature into later violence toward humans. Humane organizations, in particular, are quick to raise the specter of future Jeffrey Dahmers when asked to weigh...
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