What We Know About the Link
Between Animal Abuse and Human Violence
Mary Lou Randour, Former Program Director,
Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Society and Animals Forum)
Because of the success of many animal advocacy groups, including the two that I represent — Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Society and Animals Forum) and the Doris Day Animal Foundation — many professionals from a variety of disciplines as well as the general public have become aware of the link between animal abuse and human violence. The FBI’s investigation into the childhood of serial killers, and their discovery of juvenile animal abuse in most of these cases, drew the public’s attention to this link initially. When I make presentations to various audiences — whether educators, mental health professionals, police, prosecutors, domestic violence advocates, child protection workers, or animal control officers — most know that serials killers started their grisly careers by torturing and killing animals.
Less well known is the fact that many of the recent school shooters also engaged in animal cruelty before turning their aggression against their classmates, teachers, and parents. Kip Kinkel was reported to have blown up cows and decapitated cats; Luke Woodham tortured Sparkle, his own dog, to death, describing her dying howls as a "thing of beauty"; and Andrew Golden reputedly shot dogs with a .22 caliber rifle. Golden’s own dog "mysteriously" suffered a wound from a .22 just days before he assaulted his classmates.
Serial killers and school shooters supply dramatic currency to the link between animal abuse and human violence. Their lurid nature attracts the attention of individuals and the media and, in this way, can furnish an opening for a serious discussion of the many permutations and implications of this important link. I think it is a tactical and strategic mistake, however, for animal advocates to focus on this part of the link; it is good for an opener, but we should quickly move on to the more substantive evidence, which will have more far-reaching implications.
While many of us can be momentarily drawn to the macabre very few, if any of us, think that our sons, daughters, nieces and nephews, or next door neighbors are budding serial killers or school shooters. Let’s face it: The odds of a child becoming a serial killer or school gunman are quite remote. Very few people can identify with that prospect and, I believe, that leads to the possibility of them dismissing, or overlooking, evidence of animal cruelty that they might otherwise notice. Sure, their nephew has been known to throw rocks at neighborhood cats, but they know he is a "good kid" who goes to church, does well at school, and has won badges in his Cub Scout troop. What’s to worry about? He’s definitely not serial killer or school shooter material.
If we should emphasize the empirical basis for the link instead of the more dramatic examples, what exactly do we know? What does the research say about animal abuse? Who commits it? How do they turn out? What should we be looking for?
One body of well-established research links animal abuse with criminal behavior. For example, one well-designed study conducted by Arnold Arluke and Jack Levin, two sociologists, and Carter Luke of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA), examined the records of that agency for the years 1975 to 1996. They identified 153 men who had been prosecuted for animal cruelty and compared their criminal records to a group of "next door neighbors" — men who were similar in age, ethnic background, neighborhood, and economic status. Their findings were convincing: men who abused animals were five times more likely to have been arrested for violence against humans, four times more likely to have committed property crimes, and three times more likely to have records for drug and disorderly conduct offenses.
Another group of research studies explored the childhood of individuals who were incarcerated or committed to psychiatric hospitals for criminal offenses, comparing them to "normal" men. Would the childhood of the men in prison and psychiatric hospitals for criminal behavior reveal more juvenile animal cruelty when compared to a group of "normal" men? After conducting a number of their own studies, and reviewing the research of their colleagues, Kellert and Felthous arrived at a definitive result. They stated that there was a significant association between acts of cruelty to animals in childhood and serious, recurrent aggression against people as an adult.
As further corroboration, in one study these researchers determined that the most aggressive criminals had committed the most severe acts of animal cruelty in childhood.
One could conclude from these studies that animal abuse is associated with other types of criminal and anti-social behavior and that childhood animal abuse is an important warning sign; not all children who abuse animals become juvenile offenders or adult criminals, but they are more likely than their counterparts who do not abuse animals to do so. Being physically cruel to animals as one of the criterion for a diagnosis of conduct disorder in childhood was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1987. Substantial proportions of children diagnosed with conduct disorder continue to show behaviors in adulthood that meet criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder. The earlier the diagnosis of conduct disorder the greater the risk for being diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder and Substance-Related in adulthood.
We also know that animal abuse is closely associated with family violence, and knowledge of this link has assisted professionals in offering more effective services to people and animals. In a number of studies — one national and the others statewide — 71 to 83% of the women entering domestic violence shelters reported that their partners also abused or killed the family pet. Just as animal abuse is related to domestic violence, so it is also related to child abuse, another form of family violence. A New Jersey study of 53 families under the jurisdiction of the child welfare agency looked at the co-occurrence of child abuse and animal abuse. Researchers observed animal abuse in 88% of those families in which there was physical abuse of children. Another study arrived at similar findings.
Awareness of the link between animal abuse and family violence has produced a number of innovative programs and procedural changes. For example, intake questions for women seeking shelter now include one about the need for a safe place for the family pets.
Cooperative arrangements between domestic violence shelters and animal shelters, humane societies, and sometimes veterinary associations provide "safe pet" programs. Animal control officers are being trained to look for signs of child abuse and domestic violence when making their investigations, and to report their suspicions to the proper agencies.
While animal abuse often appears in the context of family violence, and is associated with juvenile delinquency and adult criminality, it is important to remember that many other times the animal abuse offender does not have a juvenile or adult criminal record, does not come from a dysfunctional, violent family; and may appear to be "normal" or "typical." The sad truth is that animal abuse is all too common; the prevalence rates for childhood animal cruelty are shockingly high. There are now three studies of prevalence: one is from a military sample and the other two used college students as subjects.
In the military sample 10% of the males acknowledged committing juvenile animal cruelty and 16% reported that they had witnessed it. In the two college samples, 34.5% of the males admitted to animal abuse in childhood and 48% said they had witnessed it. We don’t know, of course, whether any of the subjects in these three samples had criminal records, although it is doubtful that many had very serious records since they were either in the military or in college. And we don’t know how many came from situations of family violence, but it is doubtful that all could have. Good portions of animal abusers enter adulthood without any marks on their record, although they do appear to have psychological marks.
In one of the studies, the researcher asked his college subjects if they thought it was o.k. to "slap your wife" or to "physically punish your children." Those students who had abused animals as children were much more likely to endorse these forms of interpersonal violence.
We need a lot more information about the extent of animal abuse, the motivation for it, and how to intervene effectively. And we need to accurately convey what the research tells us to date and not to emphasize one category of animal abuse findings over another. We need to continue to warn students, parents, teachers, counselors, and other community groups that childhood animal abuse is a definite danger sign that should be heeded with a thorough assessment and effective intervention.
We also need to alert these same groups that animal abuse often is associated with child abuse and domestic violence, and to enlarge our investigations to include all members of the family — human and nonhuman. Finally, we need to acknowledge that some childhood animal abusers appear to be "typical kids," so no parent, or teacher, or other professional should be complacent.
Visit The Animals Voice Factsheets on the subject.