[San Francisco Chronicle - opinion]

Pampered more than ever and largely defenseless, critters subject to cruelty at hands of humans draw more sympathy than, well, people ...

The ancient Greeks may have revolutionized the very notion of what it meant to be civilized, but even they had in their midst some young, sadistic jerks. Their exploits led the poet Bion to scold, "Though boys throw stones at frogs in sport, the frogs do not die in sport, but in earnest."

Two millennia later, the world continues to be bedeviled by senseless acts of animal cruelty. What's changed is how the rest of us react to them.

On Thursday, football star Michael Vick pleaded not guilty to criminal charges after authorities raiding his home found 66 angry dogs, a dog-fighting pit and bloodstained carpets. An indictment claims that losing dogs were drowned, hanged and shot, or soaked and electrocuted.

Also last week, an 8-week-old rescued kitten named Adam underwent skin grafting at a Sonoma County animal hospital after having been caged and deliberately set on fire. Two 15-year-old girls stand charged with felony animal cruelty.

In both cases, as in other notorious incidents of animal cruelty, public outrage has been fierce -- so much so that it almost seems to outpace our empathy for human affliction.
These days, almost nothing so rankles people as does animal abuse. The cable channel Animal Planet has a hit with its reality series "Animal Precinct,'' which chronicles New York City's ASPCA police unit as it ferrets out repellant incidents of animal mistreatment. Purdue University has created the first class in animal forensics, training veterinary students in how to spot and document abuse of pets and livestock. Earlier this month, 104 animal lovers nationwide donned collars and staged a "chain off," tethering themselves to doghouses in heat and rain to demonstrate against the practice of chaining up dogs.
And Luke Woodham, who stabbed his mother and went on a murderous shooting rampage at his high school in Mississippi, made notebook entries detailing how he helped break the bones of his pet dog Sparkle -- laughing as it tried to escape from a flaming bag. "It was true beauty" he wrote of his "first kill."
The Chicago Police Department analyzed statistics from July 2001 to July 2004 on criminals charged in Chicago with animal abuses such as dog-fighting and discovered that 13 percent had also been arrested for sexual assault and 65 percent had been arrested for beating humans. The findings echoed similar research done on Massachusetts prisoners by Northeastern University, which concluded that people who abuse animals tend to be devoid of empathy for humans as well.

Experts say the red flags of such a disorder can show up as early as in a 2-year-old but more commonly shows up around the age of 7. While many children briefly misuse their control over animals -- pulling the legs off a granddaddy long legs or pinching a puppy -- their brains typically evolve to register a sense of empathy and then remorse.

And if not? By late adolescence, they start aiming their aggression at people.

E-mail the writer at

full story:

Fair Use Notice and Disclaimer
Send questions or comments about this web site to Ann Berlin,