Animal Abuse and Youth Violence: By: Jennifer O’Connor May, 28, 2011? Abstract: Although legal definitions of animal abuse vary, it is a crime in every State, and many States have enacted laws establishing certain forms of cruelty to animals as felony offenses. The forms of abuse to which animals may be subjected are similar to the forms of abuse children experience, including physical abuse, serious neglect, and even psychological abuse.
It has been said that violence begets violence, but what do we know about the nature of the relationship between the abuse of animals and aggressive behavior towards human beings? This paper describes psychiatric, psychological, and criminal research linking animal abuse to violence perpetrated by juveniles and adults. Particular attention is focused on the prevalence of cruelty to animals by children and adolescents and to the role of animal abuse as a possible symptom of conduct disorder. In addition, the motivations and etiology underlying the maltreatment of animals are thoroughly reviewed.
The abuse of sentient creatures demands our attention. The research includes recommendations to curb such cruelty, while providing information for additional resources concerned with violence perpetrated against animals and people. It is my hope that the information that this paper offers will contribute to reducing both forms of violence. Introduction: The past two decades have witnessed a resurgence of interest in the relation between cruelty to animals, or animal abuse, and serious violent behavior, especially among youthful offenders.
As an illustration, a recent study by Verlinden (2000) of 9 school shootings in the United States (from Moses Lake, WA, in 1996 to Conyers, GA, in 1999) reported that 5 (45 percent) of the 11 perpetrators had histories of alleged animal abuse. The well-documented example was the case of Luke Woodham who, in the April before his October 1997 murder of his mother and two schoolmates, tortured and killed his own pet dog (Ascione, 1999). It is argued here that animal abuse has received insufficient attention—in fact, is sometimes explicitly excluded (e. . , Stone and Kelner, 2000)—as one of a number of “red flags,” warning signs, or sentinel behaviors that could help identify youth at risk for perpetrating interpersonal violence (a relation first noted in the psychiatric literature by Pinel in 1809) and youth who have themselves been victimized. Defining Animal Abuse: All 50 States have legislation relating to animal abuse. Most States categorize it as a misdemeanor offense, and 30 States also have instituted felony-level statutes for certain forms of cruelty to animals.
However, legal definitions of animal abuse, and even the types of animals that are covered by these statutes, differ from State to State (Ascione and Lockwood, 2001). The research literature also fails to yield a consistent definition of animal abuse or cruelty to animals; however, the following definition captures features common to most attempts to define this behavior: “socially unacceptable behavior that intentionally causes unnecessary pain, suffering, or distress to and/or death of an animal” (Ascione, 1993). This definition excludes practices that may cause harm to animals yet are socially condoned (e. . , legal hunting, certain agricultural and veterinary practices). Because the status of a particular animal may vary from one culture to another, the definition takes into account the social contexts that help determine what is considered animal abuse. For the purposes of this review, the animals that are victims of abuse are most often vertebrates because this is the category of animals to which are attributed the greatest capacity for experiencing and displaying pain and distress. The forms of abuse to which animals may be subjected are parallel to the forms of child maltreatment.
Animals may be physically or sexually abused, may be seriously neglected, and, some might argue, may be psychologically abused. Prevalence of Cruelty to Animals by Children and Adolescents: Because cruelty to animals is not monitored systematically in national crime reporting systems, researchers must rely on data from studies in developmental psychology and psychopathology to estimate the prevalence of this problem behavior in samples of youth. A number of assessment instruments that address child behavior problems include a question about cruelty to animals.
However, “cruelty” is not always explicitly defined for the respondent, so it is difficult to determine the exact behaviors that are being reported. Using the Achenbach-Conners-Quay Behavior Checklist (ACQ), Achenbach and colleagues (1991) collected parent or guardian reports of problem behaviors for 2,600 boys and girls ages 4 to 16 who had been referred to mental health clinics and a control group of 2,600 boys and girls of the same age. The no referred children constituted a representative sample of the U. S. opulation, based on ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and place of residence. These children had been screened for the absence of mental health referrals in the past year. The referred children were drawn from 18 mental health clinics across the United States. Potential candidates for inclusion in the non-referred and referred groups were excluded if they were mentally retarded, had a serious physical illness, or had a handicap. One item on the ACQ asks the respondent whether their child or adolescent has been “cruel to animals” in the past 2 months.
Respondents can answer using the following 4-point scale: 0 = never or not at all true (as far as you know), 1 = once in a while or just a little, 2 = quite often or quite a lot or 3 = very often or very much. In their statistical analysis of individual ACQ items, Achenbach and colleagues noted that cruelty to animals was significantly higher for referred youth, boys, and younger children. There was a relatively low frequency of cruelty to animals in the non-referred sample (0–13 percent) in comparison with the referred sample (7–34 percent).
Eighteen to twenty-five percent of referred boys between the ages of 6 and 16 were reported to have been cruel to animals, and the data suggest this item’s incidence has greater stability through childhood and adolescence for boys than for girls. Data on the prevalence of cruelty to animals are also provided in the manuals for the Child Behavior Checklist (CBC), perhaps one of the most widely used checklists for child behavior problems, which is available in separate versions for 2- to 3- year-olds (Achenbach, 1992) and 4- to 18- year-olds (Achenbach, 1991).
The cruelty Youth to animals item on the CBC (which uses a “past 2 months” timeframe for 2- to 3-yearolds and a “past 6 months” timeframe for 4- to 18-year-olds) is scored on a 3-point scale: 0 = not true (as far as you know), 1 = somewhat or sometimes true, or 2 = very true or often true. Referred and non-referred boys and girls can be compared for each of three age groups. Data on acts of vandalism committed by the two older age groups are included for comparison.
Again, cruelty to animals is more often reported for younger children and boys, especially those referred for mental health services. Research also suggests that reported rates of cruelty to animals (for youth ages 4 and older) are higher than or similar to reported rates of vandalism, a problem behavior about which more systematic juvenile crime data are available. Limitations of Adult Reports on Children’s Cruelty to Animals: Both the ACQ and CBC rely on caretakers’ reports, and comparable information from youth’s self-reports of cruelty to animals is not available.
The reliance on caretakers’ reports, however, could be problematic because animal abuse may be performed covertly (a characteristic shared with youth vandalism and fire setting) and caretakers may be unaware of the presence of this behavior in their children. Offord, Boyle, and Racine (1991) surveyed a nonclinical sample of 1,232 Canadian parents/guardians and their 12- to 16- year-old boys and girls. They asked respondents (both parents/guardians and adolescents) to report on a number of CD symptoms, based on a 3-point scale identical to the one used with the CBC.
This data suggests that parents and guardians may seriously underestimate cruelty to animals, with boys self reporting this behavior at 3. 8 times the rate of parents/guardians and the girls at 7. 6 times the parent/guardian rate. Similar underestimates appear for two other CD symptoms, vandalism and fire setting, that may often be covert and, therefore, unknown to or undetected by parents or guardians. Animal Abuse and Violent Offending:
Animal abuse and interpersonal violence toward humans share common characteristics: both types of victims are living creatures, have a capacity for experiencing pain and distress, can display physical signs of their pain and distress (with which humans could empathize), and may die as a result of inflicted injuries. Given these commonalities, it is not surprising that early research in this area, much of it using retrospective assessment, examined percent of the former group reported cruelty to animals compared with 0 percent of the latter.
Miller and Knutson (1997) examined self reports of animal abuse by 299 inmates incarcerated for various felony offenses and 308 introductory psychology class undergraduates. The percentages of inmates and undergraduates, respectively, reporting the following types of animal abuse was as follows: “Hurt an animal? ” 16. 4 percent and 9. 7 percent, “Killed a stray? ” 32. 8 percent and 14. 3 percent, and “Killed a pet? ” 12 percent and 3. 2 percent. More recently, Schiff, Louw, and Ascione (1999) surveyed 117 men incarcerated in a South African prison about their childhood animal abuse.
Of the 58 men who had committed crimes of aggression, 63. 3 percent admitted to cruelty to animals; of the 59 nonaggressive inmates, the percentage was 10. 5 percent. In a study of 28 convicted, incarcerated sexual homicide perpetrators (all men), Ressler, Burgess, and Douglas (1988) assessed the men’s self-reports of cruelty to animals in childhood and adolescence. Childhood animal abuse was reported by 36 percent of the perpetrators, and 46 percent admitted to abusing animals as adolescents. Thirty-six percent of these men said they had also abused animals in adulthood.
In a study by Tingle et al. (1986) of 64 convicted male sex offenders, animal abuse in childhood or adolescence was reported by 48 percent of the rapists and 30 percent of the child molesters. Taken together, these studies suggest that animal abuse may be characteristic of the developmental histories of between one in four and nearly two in three violent adult offenders. Motivations That May Underlie Animal Abuse by Children and Adolescents: Whenever high-profile cases of animal abuse are reported in the media, a common public reaction is to ask: “Why would someone do that? Burying puppies alive, shooting wild mustangs, setting a dog on fire, beating a petting zoo donkey—these and countless other examples offend the public by their seemingly senseless cruelty. In an effort to better understand this phenomenon, Kellert and Felthous (1985: 1122–1124) interviewed abusers and discovered a number of motivations that may characterize adult cruelty to animals, some of which may also be applicable to animal abuse perpetrated by juveniles: • To control an animal (i. e. , animal abuse as discipline or “training”). •To retaliate against an animal. To satisfy a prejudice against a species or breed (e. g. , hatred of cats). • To express aggression through an animal (i. e. , training an animal to attack, using inflicted pain to create a “mean” dog). •To enhance one’s own aggressiveness (e. g. , using an animal victim for target practice). •To shock people for amusement. •To retaliate against other people (by hurting their pets or abusing animals in their presence). •To displace hostility from a person to an animal (i. e. , attacking a vulnerable animal when assaulting the real human target is judged too risky). To experience nonspecific sadism (i. e. ,enjoying the suffering experienced by the animal victim, in and of itself). Child and adolescent motivations for animal abuse have not been studied as extensively. However, case reports and a youth interview study (using the Cruelty to Animals Assessment Instrument) conducted by Ascione, Thompson, and Black (1997) suggest a number of developmentally related motivations: •Curiosity or exploration (i. e. , the animal is injured or killed in the process of being examined, usually by a young or developmentally delayed child). Peer pressure (e. g. , peers may encourage animal abuse or require it as part of an initiation rite). •Mood enhancement (e. g. , animal abuse is used to relieve boredom or depression). •Sexual gratification (i. e. , bestiality). •Forced abuse (i. e. , the child is coerced into animal abuse by a more powerful individual). •Attachment to an animal (e. g. , the child kills an animal to prevent its torture by another individual). •Animal phobias (that cause a preemptive attack on a feared animal). • Identification with the child’s abuser (e. g. a victimized child may try to regain a sense of power by victimizing a more vulnerable animal). •Posttraumatic play (i. e. , reenacting violent episodes with an animal victim). •Imitation (i. e. , copying a parent’s or other adult’s abusive “discipline” of animals). •Self-injury (i. e. , using an animal to inflict injuries on the child’s own body). • Rehearsal for interpersonal violence (i. e. , “practicing” violence on stray animals or pets before engaging in violent acts against other people). • Vehicle for emotional abuse (e. g. , injuring a sibling’s pet to frighten the sibling).
CD assessments are not usually designed to discover the underlying reasons for a child’s or adolescent’s cruelty to animals, but as with juvenile firesetting (discussed below), understanding motivations may be critical for designing effective intervention strategies. A recent review by Agnew (1998) provides a more extensive treatment of the social-psychological causes of animal abuse. As noted by Ascione and Lockwood (2001), one model that could be used to develop an animal abuse assessment instrument is the approach that has been taken to assess juvenile fire setting.
Firesetting shares many features with animal abuse: both are CD symptoms, may reflect developmental changes, may share etiological factors, may often be performed covertly, and may be early sentinels for later psychological problems. Some children may manifest both problem behaviors. Wooden and Berkey (1984) noted the co-occurrence of cruelty to animals in a sample of 69 fire setters ages 4–17: cruelty to animals was reported for 46 percent of 4- to 8-year-olds, 9 percent of 9- to 12-year-olds, and 12 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds.
The authors caution that the lower rates for older children and adolescents may be related to the covert nature of this behavior, as children experience greater independence and venture farther from home for more prolonged periods. Sakheim and Osborne (1994) reported similar results with samples of children who set fires and those who did not . Fifty percent of the fire setters’ parents reported that their children had been cruel “to children or animals,” but only 9 percent of parents of the children who did not set fires reported the same (p