Philosophy of AR > Animals and Abuse Linked

Animal and human abuse linked, studies show
By Debbi Snook, Plain Dealer Reporter

Animals also mattered on Sept. 11. Not long after the attack on the World Trade Center, animal-welfare groups were flooded with calls from people willing to take in pets orphaned by the disaster. Turns out, many animals were reunited with their owners. Few needed to be rescued. Shelter adoptions zoomed anyway. Nonviolent philosopher Mohandas Gandhi once said the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. In that sense, those gestures on that fatal day made us look good.

Unfortunately, the reverse also is true. The mistreatment of animals shows our dark side. And we are just learning how it can hurt us. It might sound like mere common sense to say that people who abuse animals may also abuse people, but only recently have scientific studies been revealing substantial links. They have shown that: Animal abusers can be five times more likely to commit violent crimes.

Teenage boys who are slapped, spanked or hit by their fathers can be more than twice as likely to abuse animals. A substantial number of teenagers who committed mass murder at their schools - nearly half in one study - were more likely to have abused animals. Sexually abused children can be more likely to abuse animals. A majority of pet-owning women living in a battered women's shelter reported their partners had threatened, hurt or killed one of their pets. One in four of those women delayed leaving home because they were afraid of what would happen to their pets. Frank Ascione, a University of Utah researcher who completed the women's study and many others, says that the connection between animal abuse and human abuse traditionally is ignored.

Animal abuse is not systematically monitored in national crime-reporting systems, he says. That makes scientific research more of a struggle. Plus, our society tends to deny the seriousness of animal abuse, chalking it up to a "boys will be boys" attitude. "I think all of us can remember an occasion when we may have been harmful to an animal, and we see it as a normal part of growing up," Ascione says. But we must try to separate the kids who abuse an animal once, and never again, from those who are crying out for help, he says. He admits it's not easy. One study showed that because of secrecy or ignorance, parents may seriously underestimate their children's cruelty to animals. What to do? Ascione recommends that parents talk to their children, and ask teachers and other caregivers to watch for any other abuse incidents. Education at an early age can work wonders, Ascione wrote in a recent paper for the U.S. Department of Justice and its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Since children 3 to 7 years old may abuse animals once out of curiosity, one of the best remedies is teaching them to be kind, caring and nurturing. That is exactly the goal of educational programs sponsored by Cleveland's Animal Protective League and other animal-care agencies like it. A few weeks ago, APL staffer Corey Roscoe told attentive first-graders at Clark Elementary School in Cleveland how to stand still and fold their hands under their chins so that a mean-looking stray dog won't bite their fingers. "He might think they're french fries," she said. Staying still for a long time, she said, could make a dog bored enough to go away. Roscoe then introduced four-legged Buddy, a volunteer so mellow he could run the petting gantlet while wearing stuffed antlers. Some of the children who stroked him had never touched a dog before, and had been scared when he first came in the room. "This is a life skill," said Principal Gail Ali. "To me, it's just as important as academics."

A child who learns to protect himself peacefully from a stray dog can meet a challenge and overcome a fear, she says. A child who learns to care for an animal deepens his understanding of how to care for others, and how their parents care for them. "If the kid learns something here, they can go home and give their parents a taste of education," added teacher Bernie Takacs. But not all schools have time for the sessions. "We have a hard time selling it," says Jeff Kocian, executive director of the APL. He says he often is turned down by schools who cite a lack of time. "I'm only guessing," he says, "but I think part of it is that the statewide achievement tests are a priority. We're just not a high priority."

Ascione says that nationally there is a growing interest in the topic of animal abuse. It has deep roots, he says, following on the heels of revelations about child abuse, sexual abuse, elderly abuse and spousal abuse. "I think we're getting better at providing services for those in our society who are vulnerable," says Ascione. "We don't always reach as many victims as we'd like to, but animals are often considered another member of the family, and they are one more group that is finally getting recognized. It's like the circle of care that is widening to encompass the human and animal family." Phyllis Carlson-Riehm, a Cincinnati-based representative of the Action Ohio Coalition for Battered Women, says women's shelters are starting to close the gap with companion animals. She knows of a woman who started a foster care program for the pets of women in a Pickaway County shelter, south of Columbus, and knows of an on-site animal shelter planned at another women's shelter in Coschocton.

What a great source of consolation and healing for the victim, for the victim's children, and for the pet," she says. This circle of care is not always backed by law. Only two states require veterinarians to report animal abuse. And only a few encourage judges to order psychological exams for convicted animal abusers. Ohio is not yet among them.

Contact Debbi Snook at:, 216-999-5466


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