Animal welfare isn’t just important to so-called “animal lovers”. In the past few decades, evidence has been gathering that cruelty to animals has much wider ramifications that affect the whole of human society. An article by Charles Siebert in the New York Times magazine last week provides a useful update on some of the evidence. The article is seven double-screens long, which makes it difficult enough to read on the internet. I’ve paraphrased some of its content here: if you’re interested in the subject, i t’s well worth reading the original piece
As the article explains , there are two serious ways that humans can be affected by animal cruelty.
Firstly, it’s been proven that there’s a link between animal abuse and physical abuse of other humans in the same household: in one study of shelters for victims of domestic violence and child abuse, more than 85 percent of those interviewed reported incidents of animal abuse. Nowadays, whenever veterinary surgeons see cases of “non-accidental injury” in pets, they know that there’s a serious risk that humans in the same household could be at risk of similar injuries. In some parts of the world, vets are legally obliged to report such incidents to social services authorities.
The second way that animal cruelty has serious consequences for humans is a phenomenon known as the “erosion of empathy”. It’s been known for some time that most serial killers start their murderous careers by killing animals: Jeffrey Dahmer impaled the heads of cats and dogs on sticks. The self-named Crossbow Cannibal from Bradford was reported to keep large lizards which he fed on live rodents. Cruelty to animals is the first step; once this moral hurdle has been stepped over, it’s much easier to be cruel to humans. It follows that if animal cruelty can be prevented, or stopped at an early stage, assault and murder of humans will also be prevented.
The New York Times article includes an interview with a researcher at the University of Chicago who specializes in the mechanisms behind empathy and emotional self-regulation. He carried out specialised MRI scans on boys with aggressive-conduct disorder and on boys who exhibited no unusual signs of aggression.
The boys were shown videos of people enduring both accidental pain, like stubbing a toe, and intentionally inflicted pain, like being punched in the arm. When viewing the videos of intentionally inflicted pain, the aggressive-disorder teenagers displayed extremely heightened activity in the part of the brain known as the reward centre, which is activated when we feel sensations of pleasure. They also displayed, unlike the control group, no activity at all in those neuronal regions involved in moral reasoning and self-regulation. This demonstrated that the brain of some people really does work in a different way, suggesting that there may be no point in simple social intervention in cases of cruel behaviour. As the researcher put it, that would be like telling someone with a broken arm to lift weights. Once the moral hurdle has been stepped over by being cruel to an animal, people just don’t “get it” when you tell them to stop being cruel. A different approach needs to be taken. The researcher felt that some people had “impaired systems of empathy”, and work has been done on finding ways to correct this.
One of the most promising methods for healing those with damaged systems of empathy is to encourage them to work with animals. Equine-therapy programs are a good example. Troubled teenagers help out at stables, mucking out, grooming horses and learning to ride. In some countries, there are now bovine- and elephant-assisted therapy programs as well. Young people can also be encouraged to work training dogs, or in animal rescue centres. The idea is that if they learn to relate to animals as sentient beings, their ability to empathise will be rekindled.
We should all pay attention to reports of animal cruelty; if the plight of the animals doesn’t bother you, think about fellow humans. To paraphrase Pastor Martin Niemöller’s poem, “First they came for the animals, and I didn’t speak up…..”