“We were bored.” Animal abuse, the abuse of women and children, and the erosion of empathy

Some excerpts from a New York Times article on animal abuse and violence of other kinds.

“On a late May afternoon last year in southwest Baltimore, a 2-year-old female pit bull terrier was doused in gasoline and set alight. A young city policewoman on her regular patrol of the neighborhood of boarded-up row houses and redbrick housing developments turned her squad car onto the 1600 block of Presbury Street and saw a cloud of black smoke rising from the burning dog. She hopped out, ran past idle onlookers and managed to put out the flames with her sweater. The dog, subsequently named Phoenix, survived for four days with burns over 95 percent of her body, but soon began to succumb to kidney failure and had to be euthanized. [More on Phoenix’s case here.]

…“What I have the most trouble relating to,” Lockwood told me, “and the Phoenix kids might be indicative of this sort of thing, is the kind of cruelty that happens just out of boredom. I’ve had quite a few cases where I ask a kid, Why did you blow up that frog or set fire to that cat? and they don’t respond with answers like ‘I hate cats’ or ‘I didn’t see that as a living thing.’ Their answer is ‘We were bored.’ And then you have to ask yourself, Well, what about alternative pathways to alleviating this boredom? I have difficulty grasping what would be the payoff for setting fire to a dog.””

What’s behind this sociopathic behavior is both very complicated and not complicated at all: this NYT article does a pretty good job unpacking the relationship between human and animal abuse.

The Animal Cruelty Syndrome

“In addition to a growing sensitivity to the rights of animals, another significant reason for the increased attention to animal cruelty is a mounting body of evidence about the link between such acts and serious crimes of more narrowly human concern, including illegal firearms possession, drug trafficking, gambling, spousal and child abuse, rape and homicide. In the world of law enforcement — and in the larger world that our laws were designed to shape — animal-cruelty issues were long considered a peripheral concern and the province of local A.S.P.C.A. and Humane Society organizations; offenses as removed and distinct from the work of enforcing the human penal code as we humans have deemed ourselves to be from animals. But that illusory distinction is rapidly fading.” …

“The link between animal abuse and interpersonal violence is becoming so well established that many U.S. communities now cross-train social-service and animal-control agencies in how to recognize signs of animal abuse as possible indicators of other abusive behaviors. In Illinois and several other states, new laws mandate that veterinarians notify the police if their suspicions are aroused by the condition of the animals they treat. The state of California recently added Humane Society and animal-control officers to the list of professionals bound by law to report suspected child abuse and is now considering a bill in the State Legislature that would list animal abusers on the same type of online registry as sex offenders and arsonists.” …

“…We discovered that in homes where there was domestic violence or physical abuse of children, the incidence of animal cruelty was close to 90 percent. The most common pattern was that the abusive parent had used animal cruelty as a way of controlling the behaviors of others in the home. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at what links things like animal cruelty and child abuse and domestic violence. And one of the things is the need for power and control. Animal abuse is basically a power-and-control crime.”” …

The dynamic of animal abuse in the context of domestic violence is a particularly insidious one. As a pet becomes an increasingly vital member of the family, the threat of violence to that pet becomes a strikingly powerful intimidating force for the abuser: an effective way for a petty potentate to keep the subjects of his perceived realm in his thrall.” …

“Whatever the particular intimidation tactics used, their effectiveness is indisputable. In an often-cited 1997 survey of 48 of the largest shelters in the United States for victims of domestic violence and child abuse, more than 85 percent of the shelters said that women who came in reported incidents of animal abuse; 63 percent of the shelters said that children who came in reported the same. In a separate study, a quarter of battered women reported that they had delayed leaving abusive relationships for the shelter out of fear for the well-being of the family pet. In response, a number of shelters across the country have developed “safe haven” programs that offer refuges for abused pets as well as people, in order that both can be freed from the cycle of intimidation and violence.” …

Watch a multi-media presentation: “Left Behind: New York’s Shelter Dogs”

“Merck has made it her mission to urge other vets to report and investigate suspected cases of animal abuse, incorporating a few cautionary tales of her own into her lectures to point up the often dire consequences of failing to do so. One involved a man from Hillsborough County in Florida who was arrested for murdering his girlfriend, her daughter and son and their German shepherd. He had previously been arrested (but not convicted) for killing cats. In another story Merck tells, one related to her by a New York City prosecutor, a woman reported coming home to find her boyfriend sexually molesting her Labrador retriever, but the case never went to trial. “My point on that one,” Merck told me, “is that no one took precautions to preserve the evidence on the dog. And once it comes down to a he-said-she-said type of situation, you’re lost. These types of cases are difficult enough even when we have all the evidence, in part because it’s very hard for investigators and prosecutors to even consider that someone would do things like this. It’s so disturbing and offensive, they don’t know what to do about it. A lot of the work I do involves not just talking to vets but reaching out to law enforcement to make them more knowledgeable on these matters, to make them understand, for example, that things like sexual assault of children and animals are linked. They are similar victims.” …

Watch a video about the ASPCA’s mobile crime lab.

By the way, I’ve made a tag to make it easier to find my previous posts about this subject.

Vets, police, people who work in battered women’s shelters or who help families dealing with violence, and animal shelter staff really need to be up on this.

Everyone should be, but those of us in positions to identify and stop abuse – and to train others how to do so – need to be particularly awake.


One response to ““We were bored.” Animal abuse, the abuse of women and children, and the erosion of empathy

  1. Pingback: Human shelter taking animals, as they all should | Gilgablog

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