Resensitizing Society: Understanding the Connection Between Violence Toward Human and Nonhuman Anima

Escrito por Nuria Querol i Viñas.

In the United States today, violence in many forms is on the rise. Domestic violence, for example, has reached such alarming proportions that the figures about to be quoted may well seem unbelievable

Resensitizing Society: Understanding the Connection Between Violence Toward Human and Nonhuman Animals

by Theodora Capaldo, Ed.D., DABPS, DABFE
and Lorin Lindner, Ph.D., M.P.H.

forensic_examin (JULY/AUGUST 1999) — In the United States today, violence in many forms is on the rise. Domestic violence, for example, has reached such alarming proportions that the figures about to be quoted may well seem unbelievable. There are now an estimated three to four million women abused by their partners annually, with violence continuing to increase in frequency and intensity. Jacquelyn Campbell, Ph.D. reports that "25-40% of all women in the United States" have been physically assaulted by a spouse or male partner (Aber, 1995). Judith Herman, Ph.D., equates violent homes with "small, hidden concentration camps created by tyrants ... and society's denial of the unspeakable" (Partoll, 1995). Equally alarming is the increase in violence to children. In 1993, the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse estimated that three million children had been abused or neglected and had been "turned in to social service agencies" (De Angelis, 1993). Due to the fear of children being removed from homes, the fear of retaliation, or myriad other reasons, an untold number of cases go unreported. Every day in the United States, three children die of abuse and neglect (White & Shapiro, 1994). Child sexual abuse has increased "by at least 300%" in the past 15 years, accounting for nearly 150,000 reported cases annually (Putnam, 1995).

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, even when not the actual victim of a violent act, our children are repeatedly traumatized by being witnesses to it. Violence occurs daily on the streets of our towns and cities, in our schools and workplaces, and on television. In one major city, as many as 90% of elementary school children witnessed some form of violence. In another, 33% of children witnessed a homicide (Groves, 1993).

Clearly, the "culture of violence" is affecting all of our intra- and inter-personal development. In her report on the effects of exposure to violence in young children, Joy Osofsky advises that being a witness to violence can create aggression, anxiety disorders such as acute and post-traumatic stress, relational problems, and a disruption in the development of empathy. It is no surprise, then, that she labels violence "a public health epidemic" (Osofsky, 1995). The fact that witnessing violence can lead to repeating it through modeling and identification with the aggressor requires that the spotlight be turned on a pervasive yet overlooked area of violence, that toward animals, which (often unwittingly) permeates our daily lives. Questions regarding who might become a perpetrator of violence and who might be a victim can be addressed by exploring some of the important connections between violence toward humans and violence toward nonhuman animals, as will be examined in this paper. Ways in which these connections may provide keys to disempowering and dismantling our "culture of violence" will also be suggested.

A Red Flag: The Predictive Nature of Violence to Animals

One important component in the reduction of violence in our culture is to be aware of the forms of violence which inundate our society yet which we tacitly condone. Violence toward animals is one of the most allowable forms of violence outside of the killing that occurs during wartime. Even then the numbers do not compare, as hunting alone, just in one year of this century, accounted for more animal deaths than all human deaths due to war from 1860-1970 (Amory, 1974).

Another essential element in the dismantling of our culture of violence is the understanding of the "animal" connection, that is, knowing that violence to animals is often predictive of violence to humans. Kellert and Felthous, for example, compared a group of men imprisoned for a violent crime with a group of nonviolent, non-incarcerated men. They found that 25% of the violent criminals reported "substantial cruelty" toward animals when they were children. None of the nonincarcerated men reported animal abuse as part of their history. (Kellert & Felthous, 1985). Ressler, Burgess, and Douglas similarly discovered that 36% of the men they studied who were incarcerated for sexual homicide had abused animals in their childhood and 46% of them had done so in adolescence, compared to virtually none of the men who were non-incarcerated or incarcerated for nonviolent crimes (Ressler et al. 1988). In yet another study, 48% of convicted rapists and 30% of convicted child molesters reported that during their childhood and adolescence they were cruel and abusive to animals, a far greater percentage compared to convicted drug addicts with no history of violence (Tingle et al. 1986). Finally, Ascione concludes that histories of cruelty to animals have been reported in 30% of convicted child molesters; 36% of assaultive women offenders; 46% of incarcerated sexual homicide perpetrators; 48% of convicted rapists; and 58% of adult murderers (Ascione, 1993).

There are also the "famous" cases of individual mass murderers who "got their training," so to speak, on animals. Jeffrey Dahmer, the cannibalistic murderer of boys and young men, had a childhood preoccupation with killing small animals, whose skeletons he collected. Alberto DeSalvo, the "Boston Strangler," who raped and murdered thirteen women, trapped dogs and cats in orange crates as a child and shot arrows through them. The "Vampire of Düsseldorf", who was finally convicted of the murder and rape of nine women and children and the attempted murder of seven others, engaged in animal torture and rape with farm animals as early as the age of nine. Women, though far less frequently, can also be cited as examples. Brenda Spencer, who killed two and wounded nine San Diego school children, was known by neighbors to be fond of setting the tails of cats and dogs on fire. In one of the first comprehensive examinations of serial killers, Eric Hickey describes numerous other such murderers and their victims (Hickey, 1991).

At the same time, children are exposed to animal images since birth and the majority grow up with an animal companion whom they consider a member of the family. Children learn responsibility from animals and develop the capacity for empathy and unconditional love from them. Thus, the foundation for the development of self-esteem is often acquired through a child's relationship with her/his companion animal. Unfortunately, in certain unhealthy family situations, children can also learn that animals are even more helpless than they are, being at the bottom of the family pyramid, and can act out their aggression against them. Or, alternatively, they can see their animal friends abused by other family members and either be traumatized vicariously or learn that aggression is acceptable behavior toward human and nonhuman animal alike (White & Shapiro, 1994).

Clinical Manifestations of the Violence Connection

It is obvious to most clinicians that a child or adolescent who abuses an animal is sending a clear message. That message is that a certain percentage will "graduate" to sadistic acts against human victims, some may be acting out their own victimization and are attempting to alert us to their need for help, and others are warning us of their inability to deal with their own internal urges toward aggression. One example, from clinical practice, is that of a woman who as an adult was still experiencing guilt over putting a kitten in a dirty, maggot-infested garbage can and leaving him there to suffocate or starve. This client insightfully commented on how this act of aggression toward a helpless animal reflected the anger she felt at her own helplessness during years of being shifted from one foster home to another, her sexual abuse in one of these homes and her physical abuse for several years in another. Another client, made to suffer at the hands of a sexually abusive father and a vicious mother, reported that she always knew when her mother was "going off" because she would routinely throw the child's Siamese cat down a flight of stairs. This client related how she, too, would abuse the cat. Through identification with the aggressor, the victim becomes the perpetrator. The child perpetrator of violent acts against animals may be acting out the violence that is being perpetrated against him or her. Understanding the "animal" connection can help alert us not only to future violence toward humans that is likely to occur but also to the current victimization of the perpetrator (Gil, 1994).

Desensitization: Raising the Threshold for Violence

Even in those instances where violence toward animals is not predictive of future or ongoing violence toward humans it is nevertheless destructive and ought to be considered intolerable. Violence toward animals, often dismissed as insignificant by law enforcement officers and mental health professionals, in fact increases our "threshold" for violence. It is part of what increases our internal capacity to not only tolerate but also perpetrate violence. If an individual is allowed to exercise cruelty toward animals -- and these activities are accepted or ignored -- it paves the way for future acceptance of similar or even more radical acts. The steps to desensitization and consequent empathic failure often begin with abuse to animals. For example, a judge in Texas dismissed as "pranks" the actions of teenage boys who tied a collie dog to a railroad track, thereby killing her in front of the young girls to whom she belonged. Subsequently, similar acts of violence --not by the same youths but by others -- were reported around the state. In one case, that of a 14-year-old boy whose killing of cats was minimized by his mother, it was found that he later went on to commit a premeditated sexual crime against a child seven years younger. Early child development experts from as far back as the 1940s and 1950s (Bowlby, 1953) were describing patterns relating to animal cruelty which we now incorporate into the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (APA, 1994). In order to truly dismantle the culture of violence, we have to start with the assumption that every violent act is unacceptable, whether it is against a dog or against a child. Only through such a recognition can we begin to decrease our threshold for violence and resensitize our society.

The Web of Victimization

Understanding the connection between violence toward human and nonhuman animals can help us as mental health professionals by alerting us to a web of victimization, of which one individual is a part. Becoming alert to the "animal piece" of a domestic abuse situation, for example, may help us to define a whole web of other victims in addition to the battered partner. Companion animals are often victims in battering situations, as are children and relatives. Not only is abuse to companion animals often predictive of violence that may escalate to humans in the household, animals and children are often secondary targets once an abusive situation is established. In one study, Ascione writes that 71% of women seeking safe-house shelter who had companion animals observed their male partners threaten or actually hurt or kill these animals (Ascione, 1996). Quinlisk's survey of a similar population of women found that of the 86% of the women who had animals in their abusive homes, 80% reported that their animals were also abused or victims of violence at the hands of the batterers (Quinlisk, 1995). In reverse, Hutton reported that 23 families investigated by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for animal abuse or neglect, 82% also had "children at risk" according to local social service agencies (Hutton, 1981). For example, surveys tell us that often women being battered in a domestic situation would not leave their homes to go to shelters because they did not want to leave their companion animals, who were also being battered. Often, women who left returned later because of concern for their companion animals. To remedy situations such as these, groups are now establishing networks of foster homes for the companion animals of women wishing to enter safe houses where "pets" are not allowed. Similarly, if mental health professionals worked more closely with humane officers and animal cruelty personnel --or if it were mandated that animal cruelty be reported by mental health agencies --interdisciplinary teams could work hand-in-hand in response to violent situations. Through such intensive interventions, we start dismantling the web of violence little by little.

Goals for A Less Violent Future

The desperation we as individuals feel when we hear about continual cycles of violence is also felt by the field of psychology as a profession. The American Psychological Association's official newspaper, the Monitor, and its journal, the American Psychologist, continually call for the profession to resolve the problem of violence. Its voices have, for example, called for "a national campaign to change attitudes toward violence and tolerance for violent behavior" (Osofsky, 1995). Psychologists understand the need for "complex solutions" for a "multifaceted problem" and for "interdisciplinary approaches." State associations such as the Massachusetts Psychological Association challenge us by asking if we as clinicians are "avoiding and denying" in our attempt to look squarely at the ugly face of violence in our world (Partoll, 1995). In the face of the growing malignancy of violence, psychology advises that "We need to develop a new strategy" (O'Neill, 1995).

Social service agencies, legal systems and animal advocacy groups are more and more concerning themselves with both human and nonhuman animal welfare. Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PSYETA), as one example, is committed to helping the profession of psychology understand the connection between violence to humans and violence to animals thereby creating a new "strategy" in our response to violence in our society. Compassion and understanding should not be arbitrarily reserved for certain populations. Research, statistics, and common sense all point to one clear conclusion: grasping the interconnectedness of human and animal violence is essential to curbing the rise of violence in our society. If we continue to treat animal abuse and neglect as a "lesser" problem, we will fail in creating a truly compassionate world. We must all work to expand the definition of compassion and to create a truly nonviolent world. Violence is violence, no matter who the victim. By understanding the "animal connection" we can move a step closer to dismantling our "culture of violence."


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About the authors

Theodora Capaldo, Ed.D, DABPS, DABFE is a Massachusetts licensed psychologist and health service provider. She has been in private practice for over 20 years. She is a member of the American Psychological Association. She is a member of the American College of Forensic Examiners and a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychological Specialties. Her special interest is in forms of violence toward animals tolerated by our society. She has also taught and served as director of counseling at several New England colleges. She is past President of Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PSYETA). Currently she is President of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS), one of the oldest animal organizations in the country based in Boston, Massachusetts.

Lorin Lindner, Ph.D., M.P.H. is a clinical psychologist and a public health educator who has been in private practice for the past 11 years in Los Angeles. She is an adjunct faculty member at Santa Monica College. Her specialty interests are forensic psychology, issues of violence, and chemical dependency. She is also the clinical director of New Directions, a comprehensive drug and alcohol rehabilitation program for homeless veterans. Dr. Lindner serves as Vice President of the Board of Directors of Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which focuses on interrupting our culture's cycles of violence by teaching compassion and empathy.


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