Philosophy of AR >
Animals and Abuse Linked
Key lessons on cruelty
By SIMON BEVILACQUA
WATCHING a group of children play at the Hobart Dogs Home last week, it was hard to imagine a child ever being cruel to a pet.
The giggling children were gentle and overwhelmed by the cuddly canines.
But children can be very cruel to pets and experts believe that in many cases the cruelty is a warning sign to some very disturbing scenarios.
Child cruelty to animals has been linked to domestic violence, child abuse and other violent crimes. The links, made by researchers in Australia, the US and Europe, are extensive.
When a child is cruel to an animal it can mean the child is being abused sexually, physically or mentally.
It can also indicate that that child has a higher likelihood of committing violent crimes, including domestic violence, in adult life.
Perplexingly, some cruelty by children is just a part of growing up -- a stage of childhood exploration.
The Tasmanian Canine Defence League operates pet care courses in primary schools to teach empathy and social responsibility.
Defence League spokeswoman Anne Boxhall said a Dog Safe Program had visited 15,000 Tasmanian school children. Another 800 children had visited the Hobart Dogs Home.
"It's a prevention program, to try and teach children how to treat their pets," Ms Boxhall said.
Philosophers in the 17th century recognised a link between cruelty towards animals and violence towards humans. The subject gained a surge of interest in the 19th century but fell out of favour and was largely ignored until recently.
A US study in 1999 found people who admitted to committing acts of animal cruelty were more likely to condone corporal punishment.
A recent Australian study by Monash University associate professor Eleanora Gullone found female victims of domestic violence also reported their abusive partners had threatened to harm, or had harmed, their pets.
Dr Gullone interviewed 104 abused women at Victorian refuges or outreach centres who had owned pets.
Almost half of the abused women reported threats against their pets compared with 6 per cent in the general population.
More than half the abused women reported actual physical harm to their pets and almost one in five reported that pets were killed.
Dr Gullone found 35 per cent of women delayed leaving abusive relationships out of concern for their pets.
A third of the abused women said their children had witnessed the pets being abused. Dr Gullone said a 1971 study had shown that boys with a history of cruelty to animals were very often subjects of child abuse.
"It has been proposed that the abuse of animals may constitute a displacement of aggression from humans to animals that perhaps occurs through the child's identification with their abuser and thereby promotes a sense of control or empowerment in an otherwise helpless situation characterised by powerlessness," she said.
A study by American expert Prof Frank Ascione found 50 per cent of men interviewed who were guilty of domestic violence admitted they had hurt or killed pets.
Another US study by Dr Ascione found 63 per cent of women in shelters who reported that their animals had been abused also reported that their children had witnessed the abuse.
Dr Ascione is an advocate for mandatory reporting by veterinarians of suspected animal cruelty.
A survey of Australian vets found 40 per cent thought all animal cruelty should be reported and one third said severe cases of animal cruelty should be reported.
Hobart vet James Harris said there was a direct correlation between animal abuse and other violent acts.
"There's no question about it," Dr Harris said. "When a child is cruel to an animal it should set off the red warning flag."
Central Queensland University researcher Nik Taylor said about 5 per cent of children will be cruel to animals but not go on to develop other problems. But he said another 10 per cent would develop problems.
"These 10 per cent should be regarded as a red flag, it may be a signal they are being abused," Dr Taylor said.
He said children who sexually abused animals had a high likelihood of having been sexually abused.
A study in NSW by criminal profiler John Clarke found people who committed acts of cruelty towards animals were also found to be more likely to commit other impulsive crimes, to have problems with substance abuse, and to have links with organised crime.
The study of NSW police records found, on average, people charged with animal cruelty offences had a further four offences recorded on their criminal record.