Connection Between Animal Abuse and Other Criminal Behavior

The connection between animal abuse and other criminal behaviors was recognized, long before the evolution of the social sciences and institutions with which we now address such behaviors. In his famous series of 1751 engravings, “The Four Stages of Cruelty,” William Hogarth traced the life path of the fictional Tom Nero:  Stage 1 depicts Tom as a boy, torturing a dog; Stage 4 shows Tom’s body, fresh from the gallows where he was hanged for murder, being dissected in an anatomical theater. Animal cruelty has long been recognized as a signature pathology of the most serious violent offenders. As a boy, Jeffrey Dahmer impaled the heads of cats and dogs on sticks; Theodore Bundy, implicated in the murders of some three dozen people, told of watching his grandfather torture animals; David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam,” poisoned his mother’s parakeet.

But the intuitions that informed the narrative arc of Tom Nero are now being borne out by empirical research. A paper published in a psychiatry journal in 2004, “A Study of Firesetting and Animal Cruelty in Children: Family Influences and Adolescent Outcomes,” found that over a 10-year period, 6-to-12-year-old children who were described as being cruel to animals were more than twice as likely as other children in the study to be reported to juvenile authorities for a violent offense. In an October 2005 paper published in Journal of Community Health, a team of researchers conducting a study over seven years in 11 metropolitan areas determined that pet abuse was one of five factors that predicted who would begin other abusive behaviors. In a 1995 study, nearly a third of pet-owning victims of domestic abuse, meanwhile, reported that one or more of their children had killed or harmed a pet.

The link between animal abuse and interpersonal violence is becoming so well established that many U.S. communities now cross-train social-service and animal-control agencies in how to recognize signs of animal abuse as possible indicators of other abusive behaviors. In Illinois and several other states, new laws mandate that veterinarians notify the police if their suspicions are aroused by the condition of the animals they treat. The state of California recently added Humane Society and animal-control officers to the list of professionals bound by law to report suspected child abuse and is now considering a bill in the State Legislature that would list animal abusers on the same type of online registry as sex offenders and arsonists.

 “It really has only been in recent years that there’s been more free and accurate reporting with respect to animal cruelty, just like 30 years ago domestic violence was not something that was commonly reported,” she said. “Clearly every act of violence committed against an animal is not a sign that somebody is going to hurt a person. But when there’s a pattern of abusive behavior in a family scenario, then everyone from animal-control to family advocates to the court system needs to consider all vulnerable victims, including animals, and understand that violence is violence.”

Last November, Lockwood was asked to testify at the pretrial hearing in which a judge ruled that Tremayne and Travers Johnson would be tried as adults for the burning of Phoenix in Baltimore last year. Lockwood looked at dozens of pictures of Phoenix in order to select which images to present to A.S.P.C.A. staff members. “I could only find one that wasn’t overwhelmingly disturbing,” he told me. “It’s where she’s so bundled up in gauze and bandages you can’t really see anything. It’s easy to empathize with burns because we’ve all been burned, and even if it’s only minor, you realize how painful that is.”

It isn’t clear whether Phoenix was used for dog fighting. Subsequent examinations of her body did find — along with evidence that gasoline had been poured down her throat — a number of bite wounds. Veterinarians, however, said that those could have been self-inflicted in the course of Phoenix’s frenzied attempts to fight off the flames. But prosecutors also later claimed that Phoenix’s accused assailants, 17-year-old twin brothers named Tremayne and Travers Johnson, of a nearby block of Pulaski Street, were using a vacant neighborhood home for the keeping of pit bulls and other ganglike activities.

The Johnson twins have pleaded not guilty. According to court documents, both suspects, said to be members of the 1600 Boys gang, were identified by a witness as running out of the alley where the dog was set alight. “There was some gang-style graffiti found in that abandoned building,” Randall Lockwood, the A.S.P.C.A.’s senior vice president for forensic sciences and anti-cruelty projects, and a member of the new Anti-Animal-Abuse Task Force in Baltimore, told me at the A.S.P.C.A.’s Midtown Manhattan offices in December. “There was also dog feces on the premises. Unfortunately, nobody bothered collecting the feces to see if it was from Phoenix.”

Along with the need to track the physical evidence of animal cruelty there is the deeper and more complex challenge of trying to parse its underlying causes and ultimate ramifications. As a graduate student in psychology, Lockwood had an interest in human-animal interactions and the role of animals and education in the development of empathy in children. This inevitably led him to consider the flip side of the equation: the origins of cruelty to animals and what such behavior might indicate about an individual’s capacity for empathy and his or her possible future behavior.

Back in the early 1980s, Lockwood was asked to work on behalf of New Jersey’s Division of Youth and Family Services with a team of investigators looking into the treatment of animals in middle-class American households that had been identified as having issues of child abuse. They interviewed all the members of each family as well as the social workers who were assigned to them. The researchers’ expectation going in was that such families would have relatively few pets given their unstable and volatile environments. They found, however, not only that these families owned far more pets than other households in the same community but also that few of the animals were older than 2.

“There was a very high turnover of pets in these families,” Lockwood told me. “Pets dying or being discarded or running away. We discovered that in homes where there was domestic violence or physical abuse of children, the incidence of animal cruelty was close to 90 percent. The most common pattern was that the abusive parent had used animal cruelty as a way of controlling the behaviors of others in the home. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at what links things like animal cruelty and child abuse and domestic violence. And one of the things is the need for power and control. Animal abuse is basically a power-and-control crime.”

The dynamic of animal abuse in the context of domestic violence is a particularly insidious one. As a pet becomes an increasingly vital member of the family, the threat of violence to that pet becomes a strikingly powerful intimidating force for the abuser: an effective way for a petty potentate to keep the subjects of his perceived realm in his thrall. In 2005, Lockwood wrote a paper, “Cruelty Toward Cats: Changing Perspectives,” which underscores this dynamic of animal cruelty as a means to overcome powerlessness and gain control over others. Cats, Lockwood found, are more commonly victims of abuse than dogs because dogs are, by their very nature, more obedient and eager to please, whereas cats are nearly impossible to control. “You can get a dog to obey you even if you’re not particularly nice to it,” Lockwood told me. “With a cat you can be very nice, and it’s probably going to ignore you, and if you’re mean to it, it may retaliate.”

Whatever the particular intimidation tactics used, their effectiveness is indisputable. In an often-cited 1997 survey of 48 of the largest shelters in the United States for victims of domestic violence and child abuse, more than 85 percent of the shelters said that women who came in reported incidents of animal abuse; 63 percent of the shelters said that children who came in reported the same. In a separate study, a quarter of battered women reported that they had delayed leaving abusive relationships for the shelter out of fear for the well-being of the family pet. In response, a number of shelters across the country have developed “safe haven” programs that offer refuges for abused pets as well as people, in order that both can be freed from the cycle of intimidation and violence.

What cannot be so easily monitored or ameliorated, however, is the corrosive effect that witnessing such acts has on children and their development. More than 70 percent of U.S. households with young children have pets. In a study from the 1980s, 7-to-10-year-old children named on average two pets when listing the 10 most important individuals in their lives. When asked to “whom do you turn to when you are feeling sad, angry, happy or wanting to share a secret,” nearly half of 5-year-old children in another study mentioned their pets. One way to think of what animal abuse does to a child might simply be to consider all the positive associations and life lessons that come from a child’s closeness to a pet — right down to eventually receiving their first and perhaps most gentle experiences of death as a natural part of life — and then flipping them so that all those lessons and associations turn negative.

In a 2000 article for AV Magazine, a publication of the American Anti-Vivisection Society, titled, “Wounded Hearts: Animal Abuse and Child Abuse,” Lockwood recounts an interview he conducted for the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services in the early 1980s. He describes showing to “a perky 7-year-old boy” a simple drawing of a boy and a dog, playing ball inside a house and a broken lamp on the floor beside them. Lockwood asked the 7-year-old — a child who had witnessed his brother being beaten by their father, who was “reportedly responsible for the ‘disappearance’ of several family pets” — to describe what would happen next in the story of the boy in the picture. “He grew still and sullen,” Lockwood writes, “and shook his head slowly. ‘That’s it,’ he said in a matter-of-fact tone, ‘They’re all going to die.’ ”

Children who have witnessed such abuse or been victimized themselves frequently engage in what are known as “abuse reactive” behaviors, Lockwood said, re-enacting what has been done to them either with younger siblings or with pets. Such children are also often driven to suppress their own feelings of kindness and tenderness toward a pet because they can’t bear the pain caused by their own empathy for the abused animal. In an even further perversion of an individual’s healthy empathic development, children who witness the family pet being abused have been known to kill the pet themselves in order to at least have some control over what they see as the animal’s inevitable fate. Those caught in such a vicious abuse-reactive cycle will not only continue to expose the animals they love to suffering merely to prove that they themselves can no longer be hurt, but they are also given to testing the boundaries of their own desensitization through various acts of self-mutilation. In short, such children can only achieve a sense of safety and empowerment by inflicting pain and suffering on themselves and others.

Body of tortured lapdog found in Rotterdam, NY

The dog — either a Shih-Tzu or Lhasa Apso — was discovered shortly before 3:30 p.m. Tuesday by a passerby who spotted what appeared to be a paw sticking out from the partially ripped open black garbage bag. That person reported the macabre find to police.

Schenectady animal control officials, along with police detectives, later determined the dog had been abused with signs of trauma to the head and dislocation of two of its legs. The animal was badly matted and showed signs of being malnourished.

The body of a small dog dumped in a bag on a roadside in town had been starved and physically abused, police said.

“This level of abuse could bring felony as well as misdemeanor charges which can result in several years in jail,” Patricia Valusek, the humane association’s president, said in a statement. “As police and the public are aware, this level of mistreatment of an animal is the pathway to violence toward humans.”


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