Animal Cruelty and Family Violence
Researchers have found that a batterer’s first target is often an animal living in the home, the second—a spouse or child. Often, batterers are able to control their victims, such as a spouse, by threatening, torturing, and/or killing the victim’s animals.
A study published in the February 2000 Violence Against Women found that of 111 battered women with companion animals in shelters in South Carolina, almost half reported that their current or former male partners had threatened or abused their animals.
A 1995 study of women living in Wisconsin shelters because of domestic abuse found that 80 percent of their batterers had been violent to their animals.
A 1997 study found that workers in 85 percent of the largest women’s shelters in 48 states had heard reports from women about animal abuse incidents.
A study comparing 101 women who had been living with animals in five Utah shelters to 120 women who lived with animals and who were not experiencing domestic violence revealed an almost 50 percent difference in the incidence of domestic animal abuse reported.
Cruel to Animals, Cruel to Children
Because domestic abuse is directed toward the powerless, animal abuse and child abuse often go hand in hand. Parents who neglect an animal’s need for proper care or abuse animals may also abuse or neglect their own children.
While animal abuse is an important sign of child abuse, the parent isn’t always the one harming the animal. Children who abuse animals may be repeating a lesson learned at home; like their parents, they are reacting to anger or frustration with violence. Their violence is directed at the only individual in the family more vulnerable than themselves: an animal. One expert says, “Children in violent homes are characterized by ... frequently participating in pecking-order battering,” in which they may maim or kill an animal. Indeed, domestic violence is the most common background for childhood cruelty to animals.
In 88 percent of 57 New Jersey families being treated for child abuse, animals in the home had been abused. An unpublished study by Frank Ascione of Utah State University found a strong pattern suggesting that child abuse victims are more likely to harm animals. Ascione found that 25.5 percent of physically abused children were cruel to animals, 13.2 percent of sexually abused children were cruel to animals, 34 percent of both physically and sexually abused children were cruel to animals, while only 4.7 percent of non-abused children were cruel to animals.
Cross-Reporting: a MultiAgency Approach
Animal abuse is often discovered earlier than child or domestic abuse because it so often occurs in plain view. While hiding their own abuse, human victims may talk openly of animal abuse or neglect occurring in the family. Since laws governing animal abuse and child abuse investigation and intervention differ, animal control agents can often enter homes when social service workers cannot. Working together through cross-reporting, these agencies can help one another gain information about possible neglect and abuse.
Baltimore police who file domestic violence reports are required to note the presence and condition of companion animals. The Philadelphia Police Department plans to add a seminar on cross-reporting to a new training program for investigators. The New Jersey Coalition for Battered Women works with animal control to identify signs of domestic violence. Florida lawmakers have proposed a law that would require child-abuse investigators to report cruelty to companion animals and animal control officers to report suspected child abuse.
Studies that have found that up to 40 percent of women have delayed seeking safety from their batterers for as long as two months because of concern for their companion animals have led to collaboration among social service and government agencies to develop programs to provide foster care for these animals. There are at least 113 of these programs planned or in existence in the United States.
The oldest program is Colorado Spring’s Domestic Violence Enhanced Response Team (DVERT). Twenty-six agencies, including the district attorney’s office, court advocates, human services, domestic violence groups, and the local humane society, work with police when an animal is living in the home where a domestic violence investigation is taking place. The humane society may shelter the animals involved.
A national public opinion survey by the Humane Society of the United States showed enormous support for cross-reporting: More than four out of five Americans support having teachers, social workers, animal welfare officers, and law enforcement officials share information on juveniles who abuse animals. Four out of five American adults support requiring social workers, animal welfare workers, and law enforcement officials to share information on cases of animal abuse to help identify potential situations of child abuse. Seventy-seven percent favor establishing a system to track adult animal cruelty offenders to identify other kinds of likely violent offenses.
In addition to local veterinarians’ becoming involved in cross-reporting, many provide foster care for the companion animals of the victims of domestic violence.
Abusers Cross Species Lines
- Wisconsin’s Leonard Kritz received time served for chopping the heads off three cockatiels, a conure, a chinchilla, a python, a boa constrictor, and another snake, after his wife told him that she had had an abortion. Kritz used a World War II bayonet to decapitate the animals and claimed that he did so in order to “teach his wife about the sanctity of life.”
- For 13 years, the husband of Sandra Ruotolo of Pennsylvania battered her. The last time, he took a break from beating her with a vacuum cleaner cord and punched Ruotolo’s dog in the face, warning her that if she left him, he would find her and slit her four dogs’ throats in front of her. After contemplating suicide, Ruotolo looked at her dog and thought, “if I die, Duchess, what’s going to happen to you?” and shot her husband to death instead.
- After Melissa Davis of Ocala, Fla., moved in with a friend because her husband repeatedly beat her, he found her and threatened to kill her dogs unless she came home. Davis refused and was presented with the head of her 4-month-old puppy later that day.
- Before Rev. Javan M. McBurrows of Pennsylvania was charged with beating to death a 4-year-old boy, he had been found guilty of two counts of cruelty to animals for mistreating two dogs and convicted of choking his wife, who testified that McBurrows had beaten all eight children living in their house. in the back of the house, police found a neglected dog who was confined to a pen, malnourished, and covered with sores.
- Guillermo Lerma of Edinburg, Texas, who is serving a life sentence for killing his girlfriend’s 2-year-old daughter, decapitated a live puppy in front of a different girlfriend’s children, warning that he would decapitate them as well if they told their mother.
- Rebecca M. Byrd of Brunswick, Maine, was charged with beating her two children, breaking nine bones in her 4-month-old daughter’s body, and punching her son’s head. Shortly before her arrest for these crimes, Byrd’s dog was found dead at the end of a chain tied to an oil tank, left to starve to death with no protection from the elements.
Notorious Killers As a child, serial killer and rapist Ted Bundy—ultimately convicted of two killings but suspected of murdering more than 40 women—witnessed his father’s violence toward animals, and he himself subsequently tortured animals. Earl Kenneth Shriner, who raped and stabbed a 7-year-old boy, was known in his neighborhood for hanging cats and torturing dogs. David Berkowitz (a.k.a. “Son of Sam”), who pleaded guilty to 13 murder and attempted murder charges, shot a neighbor’s Labrador retriever. Brenda Spencer, who opened fire at a California school, killing two children and injuring nine others, had repeatedly abused cats and dogs, often setting their tails on fire. Serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer impaled the heads of dogs and cats on sticks.
A Long Road of Violence
All too often, animal cruelty is viewed as a childhood prank and chalked up to the old adage “boys will be boys.” But it is foolhardy to ignore statistics that show that kids who hurt animals may be on a dangerous path that will only get worse if not corrected. Studies have shown that violent and aggressive criminals are more likely to have abused animals as children than criminals considered non-aggressive.
A 1999 Canadian study of 63 suspects who were charged with animal cruelty—ranging from severe animal neglect to intentional killing—found that 78 percent of them had also been charged with offenses involving violence, or the threat of violence, against people. A 1997 study revealed that 46 percent of criminals convicted of sexual homicide had previously committed acts of cruelty toward animals. A survey of psychiatric patients who had repeatedly tortured dogs and cats found that all of them had high levels of aggression toward people as well. All the kids involved in the devastating school shootings in recent years first “practiced” on animals.
School Shooters Share Violent Past
- April 1999/Littleton, Colo. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot to death 12 fellow students and a teacher and injured more than 20 others. Both teens had reportedly boasted about mutilating animals.
- May 1998/Springfield, Ore. Kip Kinkel, 15, killed his parents and opened fire in his high school cafeteria, killing two and injuring 22 others. He had a history of animal abuse and torture, having boasted about blowing up a cow and killing cats, chipmunks, and squirrels by putting lit firecrackers in their mouths.
- March 1998/Jonesboro, Ark. Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, pulled their school’s fire alarm and then shot and killed four classmates and a teacher. Golden reportedly used to shoot dogs “all the time with a .22.”
- December 1997/West Paducah, Ky. Michael Carneal, 14, shot and killed three students during a school prayer meeting. Carneal had been heard talking about throwing a cat into a bonfire.
- October 1997/Pearl, Miss. Luke Woodham, 16, shot and killed two of his classmates and injured seven others after stabbing his mother to death. Woodham’s journal revealed that, in a moment of “true beauty,” he and a friend had beaten, burned, and tortured his own dog, Sparkle, to death.