Untangling the animal Abuse Web

Escrito por Nuria Querol i Viñas.

 Academics like to erect walls. The walls do an excellent job of dividing things into neat categories: child abuse on this side of the wall, domestic violence on that side, another wall for the cruelty to animals section over there.

Untangling the Animal Abuse Web

Dorian Solot 1
Providence, Rhode Island

Academics like to erect walls. The walls do an excellent job of dividing things into neat categories: child abuse on this side of the wall, domestic violence on that side, another wall for the cruelty to animals section over there. The problem with all the walls is that they start to block our view, preventing access to each other's tools and methods.

In my experience as a domestic violence hotline counselor, animal shelter staff member, community mediator, advocate for abused children, and organizer and facilitator of several alternatives to violence programs for prison inmates, drug users, and inner-city youth, the landscape of violence begins to look familiar. Yet the literature, language, and research methodology of each "type" of violence look surprisingly different, despite the gradual realization over the last two decades that the strands in the "tangled web of violence" are worth more attention than they've previously received.

In the sphere of cruelty to animals, those on the front lines of investigation and direct service seem to be several big leaps ahead of the academics.While cities around the country organize conferences to discuss cross-training for the staff of child protective services agencies, law enforcement agencies, women's shelters, and animal welfare organizations, researchers continue to debate whether childhood acts of cruelty have any association with future violence toward humans (Felthous, 1980; Felthous & Kellert, 1987a, 1987b; Kellert & Felthous, 1985; Langevin, Paitich, Orchard, Hardy, & Russon, 1983; Ascione, 1993; Miller & Knutson, 1997).

Comparing what has been written about cruelty to animals with what has been written about domestic violence and child abuse, the first major difference is the sheer quantity of research. Sociofile, an electronic social science abstract index, lists 1,674 articles related to the keywords "child abuse," but only six under "animal abuse" and five under "cruelty to animals." Other library searches confirm how little attention has been paid to violence toward animals. Given the nascent stage of research, those researching animal abuse have a rich source of tools and insights to borrow: centuries of research and writing about violence toward humans. I will explore a few major themes, considering where we are and directions that future research might take.

Exploring the Complexity

The Domestic Abuse Intervention Project (DAIP) created a graphic "Power and Control" wheel that is widely used in the educational efforts of domestic violence prevention advocates around the country. The wheel divides abuse into nine categories, each with several examples: physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, using children, threats, using male privilege, intimidation, and isolation. While this typology's categories, like most, may be simplistic (Vermeulen & Odendaal, 1993), the wheel is a effective way to demonstrate the connections between different behaviors that some abusers use, all related to the words "Power and Control" at the wheel's hub (DAIP, 1991). A woman who has been the victim of domestic violence is often able to categorize the beatings she received as abuse, but surprised and empowered to rethink her partner's other behaviors as possibly also abusive: taking her money and making her ask for an allowance, threatening to take her children away, or making all the "big" decisions himself. The wheel is, effectively, a handle, a way to grapple cognitively with a complex social issue.

Similarly, child abuse theorists have created intricate "maps" of the interacting influences that affect the quality of parenting. One includes such considerations as parent psychiatric factors (substance abuse, self-concept, etc.), child characteristics (temperament, age, gender, etc.), social factors (income, support networks, church, etc.), sociocultural values, parental developmental history, and other short- and long-term factors to demonstrate the complex intersections of the issues involved (Biller & Solomon, 1986).

Despite the groundwork laid by researchers of other kinds of violence, those theorizing cruelty to animals -- at least from an academic standpoint -- seem to thus far lack a similar typology of the issue. Vermeulen and Odendaal propose a broad typology of companion animal abuse that offers a starting point for continued work and addresses the need for increased complexity that they recognize (1993). Previous attempts to break down animal abuse into approachable segments include abuser type: ritualistic abuse, neglect, torturers, adolescents, and animal collectors (Lockwood, 1995); abuse type: a list of 17 acts including "throwing an animal off a high place," "tying two animals' tails together," and "pouring chemical irritants on an animal" (Kellert & Felthous, 1985); direct motivation for abuse: a list of nine including "to control an animal," "to retaliate against an animal," and "to satisfy a prejudice against a species or breed" (Kellert & Felthous, 1985); and indirect reasons adolescents abuse: a list of four, including feelings of helplessness, imitating family violence, and never having learned to value the lives of others (Lockwood and Hodge, 1986).

These lists, while a start, simultaneously need broadening and narrowing. Attempting to list every possible act of violence against an animal (or a person) is a never-ending task, constrained only by the creativity of the abusers. Such a list, while helpful to understand what sorts of acts specific researchers defined as "cruelty toward animals," accomplishes little in terms of furthering an understanding of the violence. On the other hand, dividing all abuse into a few categories (abuse vs. neglect, or torturers vs. ritualistic abusers) also leaves a great deal unexplained. There are still major questions about animal abusers left unanswered: What is the ratio of child/adolescent abusers to adult abusers (most research has focused on childhood cruelty to animals, yet according to the American Humane Association (AHA), animals are probably more likely to be abused by adults (Trowbridge, 1997). How does abuse break down along lines of class, race, gender, and other variables? Are people more likely to abuse animals they know (akin to violence towards family or acquaintances) or unknown animals (stranger violence)?2 Are different "types" of abusers (by class, race, gender, family background, etc.) more likely to engage in certain types of abuse? Although there have been a fair number of experimental sketches about violence toward animals, the illustration still lacks both the broad strokes and the fine details -- the overall picture is still unclear. A more vivid understanding of the dynamics at work when humans abuse animals will bring us closer to the goal of reducing or eliminating all violence.

Grappling with Definitions

Defining what constitutes cruelty or abuse is difficult regardless of the victim's species. Some domestic violence texts call this form of abuse "any behavior a person uses to control a partner," including physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual acts in the definition (Paymar, 1993, p. ix). This definition cannot be directly applied to violence toward animals, since humans' control over animals is often a given, not a sign of abuse. How people can emotionally or psychologically abuse animals is also a matter of debate, since animals' emotional and psychological needs are difficult to establish.

The focus of cruelty toward animals has traditionally been on physical harm, since it is the easiest form of violence to recognize. In their research, Stephen Kellert and Alan Felthous defined animal cruelty as "the willful infliction of harm, injury, and intended pain on a nonhuman animal" (Kellert & Felthous, 1985, p. 1114). This definition leaves two issues unaddressed. First, according to Doug Trowbridge, Program Coordinator for Field Studies of the AHA, neglect accounts for about 90% of all animal abuse (1997). In the definition above, neglect might conceivably fall under "the willful infliction of harm," and indeed Kellert and Felthous include "deliberately starving" an animal as an example of a cruel act that would be included in the above definition. But what about the kind of neglect that Trowbridge attributes to "ignorance," such as animal guardians who leave a dog outside overnight in freezing weather, or those who tie an animal outside and forget to refill his or her water bowl? If these types of acts constitute the vast majority of what the AHA considers animal abuse, should they be included more explicitly in research definitions? Perhaps we want research to focus on more "active" forms of violence, but since such a focus would include only about 1 in 10 cases of abuse, the decision to limit the subject should be a reasoned choice. Other suggested definitions have been broader (Ascione, 1993, p. 228; Vermeulen & Odendaal, 1993, p. 249) and include neglect, though Ascione's definition only includes neglect (as "omission") when it is intentional.

The second problem with the commonly accepted definition of abuse arises when one considers the contradictions in our culture's use of animals: the very acts that would be considered perfect examples of cruelty when performed by certain individuals in certain contexts on certain species are culturally acceptable in other situations. Raising and killing animals for meat or fur, fishing, experimentation, sport hunting, dissection, and killing insects and rodent "pests" might all be considered clear examples of "the willful infliction of harm, injury, and intended pain on a nonhuman animal," yet these acts are practiced by millions of people annually and are not considered morally objectionable by most Americans. This problem is illustrated in Vermeulen and Odendaal's examination of animal abuse reported to SPCAs. Many of their categories of abuse, including inbreeding, sport, experimentation, installation of fear, and deprivation of affection, had no reported instances (1993). This is not to say that these acts never took place, but rather that society's view of such acts as acceptable or even commonplace gives them no reason to report them to the SPCA. In this case, reported acts of abuse tell more about what society perceives to be a problem than what is actually taking place.

When relying on people's own recollections of their cruelty toward animals, one must wonder how people learn to differentiate between hunting rabbits for fun as a boy (not considered cruelty), killing a chicken for dinner (also not cruel), and breaking rabbits' legs (cruel). What if one cuts the chicken's head off for the amusement of watching its body walk around before it dies -- does society still consider the killing uncruel? When exploring possible connections between violence toward humans and violence toward animals, what do we do with the man who hunted rabbits as a boy yet would never think to classify the sport as inflicting harm on an animal?

Subcultures of acceptable behaviors complicate the picture still further. Kellert and Felthous separate out "possible indicators of animal cruelty" that they say are linked to social acceptability or value standards, such as participation in cockfights, harsh physical punishment during the training of an animal, and sexual play with animals (Kellert & Felthous, 1985). However, many more of the acts they imply to be unquestionably cruel might fall in a similarly gray area, perhaps considered cruel by "mainstream" culture but acceptable by a given subculture. One subject Kellert and Felthous interviewed said he killed "animals in an outrageous fashion to impress his motorcycle gang members," and another said he was cruel to animals as a way of demonstrating his violence to others (p. 1122). If one's peers, gang members, or other subculture expect one to demonstrate one's worth by being violent toward animals, this seems a perfect example of "cultural relativity": whose definition of acceptable cruelty do we employ?

This definitional problem is illustrated again in an anecdote related by Barbara Boat about teenage boys who caught a six-month-old kitten in a leg hold trap, shot arrows into the kitten, and stomped it to death, laughing and joking as they videotaped the event. When questioned about the incident, one boy said, "But it was only a cat." His mother was also puzzled by the fuss being made about the case, explaining that he wasn't a cruel child because he had never mistreated his dog (Boat, 1997). In this situation, values regarding cats were clearly transmitted from mother to son, resulting in the son's participation in an act he believed to be acceptable. From their comments, both mother and son appeared to distinguish clearly between acceptable and unacceptable violence: if the son had killed a dog -- or a human -- we might predict the mother would find his behavior cause for concern. But if researchers find killing a kitten unacceptable, drawing their line somewhere between rodent and cat instead of between cat and dog, the base assumptions about violent acts rest on ground that appears more stable than it actually is.

Since societal definitions of acceptable and non-acceptable behaviors change slowly -- witness the gradual shift in attitudes toward wearing fur over the last decade -- the contradictions in cultural attitudes toward animals are not going to disappear tomorrow. Yet researchers need to be cognizant of and willing to grapple with these contradictions, particularly if research subjects are asked to generate their own memories of "harm" toward animals.

Don't Forget the Animals in Animal Cruelty

Quotes like the following one have become quite common in texts about the connections among various types of violence: "Over the last decade, social scientists and human-service agencies have finally begun to examine cruelty to animals as a serious human problem" (Lockwood & Hodge, 1986, p. 2). National projects like the Humane Society of the United States' (HSUS) First Strike! campaign are being launched to draw public attention to facts like, "Animal cruelty, in particular, is often an early-warning sign of violent tendencies that will be acted out eventually against people" (HSUS, 1997, p. 1).

Of course, the connections between animal and human violence are important ones to be making; as I argued above, there are certainly insights to be gained from leveling some of the dividing walls to make the landscape of violence more visible. Yet the published research on animal abuse -- unlike the published research on any other form of violence -- is motivated almost without exception by the connection to human violence. Most subjects who have been interviewed in studies about cruelty toward animals are criminals (and noncriminal control groups) who have committed violent crimes against humans. When even animal welfare organizations like HSUS launch major campaigns calling attention to animal abuse as a "human problem," those who always studied animals appear thrilled to leap into an arena that finally validates their interest. Since any focus on animals is frequently perceived as silly or less serious than a focus on humans, it appears that the new interest in "the web of violence" has provided the perfect opportunity for those who previously focused on animal abuse to reap praise for performing the role of "early warning sign" for more "important" kinds of violence.

It is crucial that those in the field of violence toward animals not accept being characterized as chroniclers of a symptom of larger problems, but that they insist that their studies be seen as having intrinsic worth. It would be ludicrous for us to belittle other forms of violence by pointing out that "a woman who beats her children needs to be tracked, because someday she may hurt an adult" or "dating violence is a real problem because the teen who rapes his girlfriend is more likely to kill his wife." Even as we validate the connections among all forms of violence, we must take care not to invalidate each separate form. The woman who beats her children, the teen who rapes his girlfriend, and the adolescent who sets a cat on fire all need attention because they have committed horrific acts of violence against other living beings -- not because someday they might do something worse.

Stop Competing

Throughout the literature on violence, both popular and academic, are assertions that society cares more about one kind of victim than another. The most common claim is the counter-intuitive one made by Barbara Boat and others that society is more willing to tolerate violence toward children than toward animals. She cites as proof the example of a woman killed by a mountain lion, both leaving orphaned young, where the amount of money the public donated toward the mountain lion's cub exceeded the money donated toward the woman's children (Boat, 1995). An article about domestic violence cited as cause for alarm the fact that there are more animal shelters in the United States than shelters for battered women (The Spread, 1996).

Besides the fact that the situation is not even clearly a fair comparison -- did the children have a father? How did the media portray the situation, and which orphan's photograph was featured more prominently? Is money donated the best way to ascertain the public's sympathies? -- the competition is profoundly unproductive. It is well established that the American public responds in irrational ways to identified victims ("victims with a face") of any species, such as the cases of the outpouring of attention to two whales trapped in the ice while the endangered species is neglected, or the gifts sent to the girl who fell into a well while poor children across the country live in unsafe, unhealthy conditions.

It may be true that the number of animal shelters exceeds that of battered women's shelters. It is also true that humans currently have an assortment of rights not available to animals, and that every state has a major agency, funded by taxes, devoted to child welfare, without an equivalent for animal welfare. The competition for Most Favored Victim Status is a clear example of bickering among potential allies, while the real enemies -- poverty, a violent culture, a government that spends many times one and a half times as much on the military than on all services for humans or animals combined (War Resisters League, 1997), the forces that oppress children, women, animals, the elderly, and other common victims of violence -- are ignored. Securing attention and funding for one's cause, be it animal or human victims of violence, need not be dependent on attacking the others. As many try to teach their children, cooperation will benefit us much more than competition.


The concept of a tangled web of violence, each strand connected to others, offers exciting possibilities for insights not available to any of us standing alone on one side of a wall or another. The subject of violence toward animals has thus far received far less formal study than violence against humans. Yet this later chronological development gives those researching animals a certain advantage: the realization that violence is a well-theorized and much-researched (though always complex) subject. If we accept the premise that similar issues of violence, power, and control exist in all violent situations (Pagelow, 1984; Paymar, 1993; Schmidt, 1995), it stands to reason that concepts borrowed from research on violence toward humans would apply to situations involving violence toward animals.3

Research on animal abuse needs to continue to explore the complexity, both expanding and refining its focus, in order to provide a framework for understanding the whos, hows, and whys of violence toward animals. This understanding is complicated by our society's contradictory attitudes toward animals. Further understanding is also endangered both by the temptation to value (or choose to conduct) research on animal abuse based solely on its applicability to humans and by the competition for most victimized status. If we are to be successful in our quest for a society without violence, in which all living beings are treated with dignity and respect, we must have a better understanding of all types of violence. There is much work to be done.


1. Correspondence should be sent to Dorian Solot, 19 Phillips Street, Providence, RI 02906.

2. In an article on family violence, Elizabeth Kandel-Englander found that 90% of violent men were either violent towards their families or violent towards non-family members, but not both; their violence was not indiscriminate. Such an insight into violence toward humans has fascinating implications for violence toward animals in terms of our understanding of how abusers choose their victims and why they abuse (Kandel-Englander, 1992).

3. An example of extrapolation from theories of violence to situations of animal abuse involves choice of animal victim. If all violence relates to power and control, are abusers more likely to make cats their
victims rather than dogs (Felthous, 1980; Felthous & Kellert, 1985) because cats are behaviorally less willing to be controlled by their owners?


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