By Murry J. Cohen, M.D., and Caroline Kweller
To punish his wife for having an abortion, a Wisconsin man stabbed or beheaded his wife's companion animalsbirds, snakes, and a chinchillasaying it was necessary to teach her a lesson about the importance of life.
Although this April 1999 case made news because it involved eight animal victims and extreme barbarism, it is by no means isolated. Experts increasingly recognize a disturbing correlation between cruelty to animals and domestic violence. Batterers, usually male, vicariously abuse women and children by hurting the animals they love, implying, "Watch outmaybe you'll be next." Common types of cruelty include torture, shooting, stabbing, drowning, burning, and bone-breaking.
A study of 111 battered women who sought shelter in South Carolina, published in the February 2000 Violence Against Women, found that of those women with companion animals, almost half reported their current or former male partners had threatened or abused the animals. A 1995 study of 72 women taking refuge in Wisconsin shelters because of partner abuse found that of the women with animals, 80 percent said their batterers had been violent to the animals. And a 1997 study of the largest battered women's shelters in 48 states revealed that workers at 85 percent of those shelters had heard reports from women about incidents of animal abuse. The shelter workers estimated that such abuse takes place in more than 40 percent of the domestic violence cases reported to their shelters.
The main reason for animal abuse within a domestic relationship is control. Threatening, harming, and killing companion animals can powerfully demonstrate someone's power over a partner or child.
Abusers also harm animals to punish their partners for leaving, or trying to. One man, whose wife went to a domestic violence shelter, sent his mother-in-law a picture of him using gardening shears to chop off the ears of his wife's dog. After receiving the photo from her mother, the man's wife told the shelter counselor she had to go home to save the lives of her dog and other animals.
Why does animal abuse occur so often in family violence situations? Primarily, because animals make easy targets. It has taken U.S. society many years to move toward viewing violence against women and children as criminal and warranting punishment, instead of as a private family issue, or as appropriate punishment for some misdeed, real or imagined.
Sadly, society does not yet fully recognize animal abuse as a serious crime. Most states classify animal cruelty as a misdemeanor, and in many cases, animal abuse goes unprosecuted. When it is, perpetrators usually walk away with light fines, community service, or a few months of probation.
Of course, disregard for animal welfare cannot be totally blamed on legal shortcomings. Animal lives are seen as unimportant and expendable by society generally. Americans eat more than 9 billion animals annuallythat's 1 million every hour. Millions more perish for luxury items such as fur, the testing of cosmetics and household products, and recreational purposes such as hunting and fishing.
Despite these grim facts, there's some reason for optimism. Gradually, the judicial system is discerning the deadly link between domestic violence and animal abuse. For example, a popular bill introduced by Florida state Rep. Steve Effman (D) would require those investigating animal abuse and child abuse to share information; several other states are considering similar moves. In May, a Tucson man who had cut the throat of his girlfriend's dog after a domestic fight was sentenced to serve 18 months in prison and pay the dog's medical and re-socialization bills under Arizona's new felony animal cruelty law.
Cross-training and cross-referrals between animal protection personnel, social service agencies, law enforcers, and mental health professionals need to become routine. Also, shelters could either allow women and children to bring their animals with them, or collaborate with local animal shelters, veterinary schools, or animal rescue agencies to help find safe havens.
The last thing victims of violence should need to worry about is whether their companion animals will be harmed. Social service professionals and the legal system have the resources, or can develop them, to keep all victimshuman and nonhumansafe from cruelty and abuse.
A program called "First Strike," developed by the Humane Society of the United States, helps the public and relevant professionals treat animal abuse as a serious crime and an indicator of other forms of violence, including domestic violence. For further information, call the Humane Society toll-free at 1-888-213-0956.
Murry J. Cohen, M.D., a psychiatrist in practice in Northern Virginia, is a medical consultant to the Washington, D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, founded in 1985. Caroline Kweller is a health writer in San Jose, California.