Animal abuse or animal cruelty is a complex, multidimensional phenomenon, which only recently has come to the attention of researchers and the general public. Popular television shows such as Animal Cops and Animal Precinct have brought the problem of animal mistreatment to the general public. These shows document the work of animal welfare professionals and bring to life the horrific treatment some animals endure at the hands of their owners. Animals are victimized in many ways, sometimes by deliberate acts of violence and other times by more passive neglect. Regardless, animals suffer real physical and emotional pain and sometimes die as a result of abuse.
Animal mistreatment is an important issue for a number of reasons. Ironically, a society that embraces socially accepted practices such as hunting and fishing also reveres its animals. Marked by the large number of homes and farms that have at least one pet, animals are an integral part of American life. There is no universal agreement as to whether or not animals should be used for experimental purposes, or as an indispensable part of the human diet, or for sport or entertainment, etc. However, many would agree that animals, especially those deemed as pets, are deserving of our respect and worthy of proper treatment. Animals are capable of feeling both physical and emotional pain and are victimized, much like humans are, by mistreatment, sometimes with tragic consequences. Therefore, protecting animals from mistreatment has desirable social value.
Second, research has found consistent evidence that animal abuse, in its various forms, is linked to interpersonal violence. In particular, there appears to be a clear link between animal mistreatment, child abuse and neglect, and intimate partner violence. Promoting a better understanding of animal abuse will only shed greater light on the critical factors associated with violence among humans, and in particular, violence within families. Therefore, animal welfare officials, veterinarians, mental health practitioners, law enforcement personnel, and criminologists have much to gain by working together to protect both animals and people. A social commitment to protecting animals is also a commitment to protecting people.
Historically, public policy addressing the plight of animals has evolved from an initial focus on animals as property with economic value to a more humane approach concerned with the overall physical and emotional welfare of animals. The first statute to address the actual welfare of animals was passed in New York State in 1866 as a result of the advocacy efforts of Henry Bergh, a wealthy New York City philanthropist. Although animal cruelty laws had existed prior to this time, statutes tended to reflect concern over only those animals that had established financial worth, and ‘‘cruelty’’ applied only when someone other than the owner mistreated the animal. The purpose of such laws was to assist property owners in protecting their property. Henry Bergh, appalled by the cruelty he observed toward some animals in New York City, organized the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and was ultimately successful in spearheading policy change across the nation. In fact, the assistance of the ASPCA was sought in the landmark case of Mary Ellen Wilson in 1874. Mary Ellen was a 9-year-old child who was abused by her legal custodians. Since no laws existed to protect Mary Ellen from her abusers, the ASPCA intervened, arguing that Mary Ellen was part of the animal kingdom and therefore was deserving of protection like other animals. Later that year, the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC), one of the nation’s first child welfare organizations, was founded.
Although great strides have been made over time to protect animals from abuse and neglect, much work is left to be done. Animal welfare laws vary widely from state to state. Definitions of abuse vary; diverse social standards exist regarding what is considered appropriate minimum levels of care, proper shelter, humane training methods, disciplinary practices, etc. In addition, there are differing views on how stray, wild, livestock, and companion animals ought to be treated. Differing views regarding animal treatment are embedded in both cultural and religious traditions; therefore, there is no clear consensus on what constitutes animal abuse.
Although animals are still considered property, both state and federal lawmakers have recognized the need to protect animals from acts of cruelty and have enacted legislation to address both acts that cause deliberate harm as well as neglect. Most states have provisions making animal cruelty a felony; however, other states consider such acts misdemeanors. Many laws exclude accepted practices such as hunting and trapping of wildlife and animal husbandry. Also, many laws exclude animals used in legitimate research. As the research on the connection between animal and human violence continues to mount, some states have responded with additional legislation. For example, requiring persons convicted of animal abuse to undergo psychological evaluation or counseling, granting veterinarians who report cases to authorities immunity from civil or criminal litigation, and promoting cross-system training and reporting of potential abuses by caseworkers responsible for the protection of children and adults.
Enforcement of animal cruelty laws varies across the states. In some jurisdictions, enforcement is left to local law enforcement officials. In other jurisdictions, state and local governments grant authority to animal welfare officials such as humane officers or animal control officers to enforce abuse laws. Since there is no uniformity in how animal cruelty laws are enforced, there is also no uniform methodology for measuring the prevalence of animal cruelty or neglect. Even though authorities document cases that have been reported to them, animal cruelty is not systematically monitored like other crime types. Studies have examined animal mistreatment among specific populations of people; however, no national studies have been conducted which attempt to estimate the prevalence of different forms of animal mistreatment in the general population. Therefore, we are aware only of cases that have involved the authorities.
Forms of Animal Abuse
The mistreatment of animals takes many different forms. Like humans, animals can be physically or sexually abused, neglected, or intentionally tortured and killed. Emotional or mental abuse or neglect is also an inherent problem among animal cruelty cases; however, documenting that an animal has suffered emotionally or mentally is often a difficult task, especially if no other signs of abuse are present. Animal abuse also encompasses both acts of commission and acts of omission. Acts of commission are considered those in which the animal owner or caretaker does something to cause injury or harm to the animal, while acts of omission are those in which the owner or caretaker fails to do something for the animal, which ultimately results in harm.
There is currently no universal typology to describe the various ways animals are abused. As described earlier, this is complicated by the fact that state laws vary in their definition of what an animal is and what constitutes cruelty, abuse, and neglect. For the sake of simplicity, several different categories of animal abuse are described here, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect. These categories of animal abuse have the closest link to interpersonal violence and family violence in particular. It should be noted, however, that animal mistreatment can be manifested in a variety of ways with varied motivations.
The physical abuse of animals can involve a wide range of injurious acts. Physical abuse requires an active engagement of maltreatment. Animals suffer from being hit, kicked, burned, poisoned, whipped, disfigured, dismembered, stabbed, stoned, shot, trapped, strangled, thrown, etc. Animals may also be physically abused if their movement is restricted for long periods of time, have been restrained in an inhumane manner, or are living in overcrowded conditions. Also, animals are at risk for injury when disciplinary practices or training methods involve physical punishment. In some instances, animals die as a result of such physical abuse. The term ‘‘peticide’’ refers to situations in which family pets have been purposefully killed, often as a result of or in conjunction with other forms of family violence.
A wide range of animals can fall prey to physical abuse, including wild, stray, and livestock animals as well as pets such as birds, cats, dogs, fish, turtles, etc. Animal cruelty statutes generally do not protect all species of animals, and definitions of what types of creatures are worthy of protection are generally defined in statute.
Individual motivations for physically abusing an animal vary widely. In some cases, incidents of physical abuse are intentional, overt acts to cause specific harm to the animal. In these types of cases, the abuser gains some form of satisfaction from torturing or teasing the animal. In other cases, especially those involving other forms of family violence, deliberate acts of cruelty toward animals is intended to instill fear and emotionally harm one or more family members. Animals are abused as a tool to threaten and terrorize intimate partners, children, or siblings. In many cases, the animal being victimized is a family pet. Most would consider such acts to constitute animal cruelty.
In other cases, animals may be physically abused as a result of commercial exploitation in which animals are forced to engage in fighting, breeding, experimentation, sporting, or excessive labor, etc. The intention is not to harm the animal specifically but to use the animal for economic benefit, often with little regard to the animal’s well-being. In these cases, animals are physically abused as a result of some type of commercial enterprise. Animals are often mistreated in settings such as circus and other entertainment venues in which animals are expected to perform, companies that use animals for the testing of products such as pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, dog and horse racing, and companies that prepare animals for slaughter for human consumption. Although these types of activities are socially acceptable, there is concern that animals are treated in a fair and humane manner, minimizing their pain and suffering. Animal welfare legislation exists to protect such animals. Outside of these legal commercial activities, animals, especially dogs and roosters, endure physical abuse by being forced into fighting. Animal fighting is an illegal practice and is often specifically addressed in animal cruelty legislation. However, the link between commercial exploitation and interpersonal violence has not yet been addressed by the research literature.
Regardless of motivation, most state statutes utilize the word ‘‘cruelty’’ to describe situations in which animals are deliberately injured and those that are harmed from reckless or neglectful behavior. Therefore, the term ‘‘animal cruelty’’ often refers to a broad range of acts and/or practices that are deemed cruel and inhumane.
The sexual abuse of animals is a phenomenon that is not well understood by clinical practitioners or researchers. Very little is known about the prevalence of sexual activity between humans and animals; however, research suggests that the engagement of animals in various levels of sexual activity may be more common than previously recognized. In fact, sexual contact between humans and animals has been documented throughout history in art and literature. Even the earliest of civilizations have depicted humans and nonhumans engaging in sexual activity in cave drawings and tomb paintings.
Although evidence of sexual contact between humans and animals has been established in various societies and continues into contemporary times, this form of sexual behavior is still considered deviant by mainstream society. As a consequence, many states have explicit language making such contact illegal. Penal codes address sexual contact with animals under specific laws making bestiality illegal, under broader animal cruelty statutes, or under the more generic category of sodomy. Although some laws do not specifically outlaw sexual contact with animals, most laws do provide avenues for prosecution when it can be determined that an animal has been physically injured as a result of such sexual activity.
The animals most likely to be used for sexual gratification by humans include pets such as dogs and cats, and animals found on farms, such as horses, goats, sheep, pigs, hens, etc. These animals are the most accessible, since they are not living in the wild. In cases of family violence, the animals most likely to be sexually victimized are those to which family members have a special attachment. All kinds of sexual contact are possible, including use of the animal for human masturbation, masturbation of the animal, oral sex, and intercourse. Although not all sexual contact involves physical injury, injuries such as vaginal or rectal tears, discharge or bleeding, and internal trauma are indicative of abuse in animals. These are consistent with the types of injuries found in human victims of sexual assault. In addition, changes in an animal’s behavior and demeanor may suggest sexual abuse.
The use of animals for the sexual pleasure of humans is a controversial matter. Regardless of visible injury to animals and the various motivations individuals may have for engaging animals in sexual activity, some consider any sexual act with an animal to be harmful to animals and therefore an animal welfare concern. Others, such as researchers and clinicians, are concerned about bestiality as a companion behavior to other problematic behaviors in both children and adults. Since research has found evidence linking sexual contact with animals as a consistent feature among other aggressive, violent behaviors toward humans, its role in interpersonal violence cannot be underscored. Yet, others argue that bestiality is a more complex phenomenon and is not necessarily a direct link to psychological or pathological social behavior. They argue that not everyone who engages in sexual activity does so to harm animals or humans, nor do they necessarily view all such acts as harmful to animals. There appears to be a wide range of reasons and motivations for engaging in various forms of sexual fantasy or sexual behavior with animals. Further research is warranted.
As a controversial matter, the terms ‘‘bestiality’’ and ‘‘zoophilia’’ are often used interchangeably to describe the engagement in sexual activity with animals by humans. However, some argue that the terms really refer to different levels of attachment to animals. ‘‘Bestiality’’ refers specifically to sexual acts with animals, while ‘‘zoophilia’’ or ‘‘zoosexual’’ refers to a broader interest or attachment to animals. Those who are actively involved in relationships with animals, including sexual contact, refer to themselves as zoophiles. Many zoophiles see their involvement with animals as a lifestyle or orientation. The term ‘‘zoophilia’’ is considered one of many paraphilias noted by mental health professionals. The term ‘‘paraphilia’’ is assigned to signify individuals who have atypical sexual interests and are sexually aroused by nontraditional objects or situations. These sexual interests are generally considered taboo by society at large. Although some paraphilias, especially those involving a lack of consent or those considered criminal, are considered potentially dangerous, many paraphilias are not inherently dangerous or necessarily harmful. The American Psychiatric Association (1994) in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition (DSM-IV), considers paraphilias problematic when the sexual behavior causes significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning. Researchers have further defined sexual desires and practices into more distinct forms of sexual involvement. Examples include: formicophilia (sexual activity involving very small animals such as ants, insects, frogs, etc.), mixoscopic zoophilia (sexual interest in watching animals copulate), and zoosadism (sexual pleasure derived from torturing or killing animals or forcing intimate partners or others to engage in sexual activity with animals).
The vast majority of cases brought to the court system for animal cruelty involve active neglect. Animal neglect refers to situations in which animals have not been provided adequate food, shelter, or medical care. It may also involve the failure to euthanize an animal when medically necessary. In cases of neglect, animals endure physical injury as a result of neglectful or careless behavior on the part of the animal owner or caretaker.
Animals that are neglected are often in very poor physical condition and suffer from a variety of ailments. Animals that are not provided with adequate food or water usually have poor body weight and, in severe cases, look visibly malnourished or starved. Providing proper food for the species is also important because animals that have been given improper food can also suffer from starvation.
Animals whose grooming care is neglected experience a number of problems, including the matting of hair coat, loss of hair or feathers, long nails or hooves, and decaying teeth and other dental problems. Open flesh wounds are common when animals are subjected to collars, chains, or harnesses that are not fitted properly or left on continuously. In some cases, the collar actually becomes embedded in the skin of the animal, causing the animal great pain. Animals may also be infested with parasites, which are organisms that live off the animal as a host. Animals may be exposed to external parasites due to poor living conditions, or internal parasites, which are transmitted through excrement or food. Animals may suffer from severe skin irritation exhibited in itching or sores, referred to as mange. Mange is a general term used to describe a variety of skin conditions caused by the infestation of different kinds of mites.
Animals also suffer when their medical care is neglected. Untreated injuries, illnesses, or diseases can have disastrous consequences for animals, leading to problems such as blindness, loss of limbs, or death. Overall poor living conditions, evidenced by inadequate space, light, and ventilation, poor sanitation, or excessive numbers of animals in confined spaces can complicate the consequences of such neglect.
Of particular concern are individuals who accumulate large numbers of animals, often referred to as animal collectors or animal hoarders. Animals living in these conditions are at great risk of neglectful care and often pose a public health problem for all those living on the property or perhaps even the surrounding community. Animal owners who fail to provide the minimum standards of care, fail to act on the deteriorating conditions as the animal population grows, and are unable to cope with the negative consequences such an environment would have on humans living with the animals are considered animal hoarders. In many cases, animal hoarders are not only not able to care for the animals, but are not able to care for themselves or others as well. Children, the elderly, and the disabled are more likely at risk for being neglected in these circumstances. Self-neglect, especially among the elderly, is also a common feature of hoarding. Animal hoarders tend to be older, female, and socially isolated.
The public health concern regarding animal hoarding cannot be underestimated. Animal hoarders often have dozens to hundreds of animals living with them in single family homes, apartments, or trailers. Commonly, cats, dogs, birds, and farm animals are involved. Often dead animals have not been properly disposed of and may be found dispersed around the home, or found in freezers, sheds, or garages. Homes are usually found in complete disarray and disorganization, with excessive clutter, failed utilities, lack of running water, piles of garbage strewn about, and human and animal urine and feces covering the surfaces of the living space. As a result, homes might also be infested with insects and rodents.
It is difficult to comprehend the extreme level of squalor some hoarders and their families live in. In most cases, the health and safety of both humans and animals is in jeopardy. Humans exposed to such conditions are at great risk of developing multiple health conditions, compounded by the inability to maintain proper nutrition or personal hygiene in such unsanitary environments. Of particular concern is the risk of contracting zoonotic diseases. Zoonotic diseases are those caused by infectious agents that are transmitted between animals and humans, generally through urine, feces, blood, milk, or saliva. Individuals who have preexisting health problems associated with their immune systems are at greatest risk of contracting additional illnesses as a result of the unsanitary conditions. An additional danger consists of high levels of ammonia exposure for those living in the home. In severe cases, the air quality is so toxic that animal welfare officials must wear protective gear and use special breathing equipment to be able to safely enter the homes. Municipalities may have to condemn the home, and in some cases destroy the building. Also, neighboring homes, businesses, schools, etc., may experience health risks associated with animal hoarding.
Animal hoarding is not well understood by the psychiatric community. It is believed that animal hoarding is associated with mental illness; however, no specific diagnosis exists in the literature to date. Hoarding behavior in general is symptomatic of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and obsessive- compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). Animal hoarding is also manifested in a variety of psychiatric conditions. Described as a multifaceted mental health problem, it may be linked to limitations in information processing, decision making, and distorted thinking regarding possessions and hoarders’ ability to properly care for their animals. It is associated with dementia, delusional disorders, impulse control disorders, and attachment disorders. There is some evidence that histories of child abuse, neglect, or dysfunction within the family is associated with animal hoarding later in life. This link should be researched more fully.
Animal Abuse: The Link to Domestic Violence
The past several decades have been marked by increased interest in the link between animal mistreatment and interpersonal violence. Reasons behind animal mistreatment and violence against humans are complex and varied; therefore, it is difficult to determine the exact pathways of how these two social problems are related. The research evidence does not confirm a causal relationship, nor can it confirm that one form of violence is always a precursor to another. For example, not all children who exhibit cruel acts toward animals grow up to be violent offenders; however, many serial killers and other violent offenders acknowledge having committed such acts as children.
However, the evidence is clear that there is a strong connection that should not be minimized. When humans are vulnerable to abuse and neglect, animals are likely to be as well. When animals are identified as being abused or neglected, it is feasible that humans may also be at risk of victimization. The risk within abusive families appears to be of greatest concern. Yet, little has been done to document the extent, on a large-scale basis, of the conditions in which animal mistreatment exists within abusive family environments. Animal welfare officials have long known that many victimized animals live with problematic families. At the same time, child and adult protective caseworkers and domestic violence advocates have observed or heard reports from their clients that animals have been mistreated. Most states have no protocols or formal policy to address the cross-system issues inherent when both animals and humans are at risk of abuse.
Yet, the evidence is mounting that reforms are warranted. Policy and programmatic approaches to intervention in animal abuse and family violence require collaboration and integration across systems. A commitment to continued research is necessary and likely to increase our understanding of what factors influence violent behavior and provide guidance on how best to protect both people and animals from abuse and neglect.
Though research on the connection between animal abuse and family violence is still evolving, several themes have surfaced.
First, animal abuse appears to be a consistent feature among violent families, particularly those families in which children and intimate partners are also abused. Animals become additional victims within the household. Studies have attempted to measure the frequency with which the coexisting problems of family violence and animal abuse occur. Studies have found that in families that have exhibited child maltreatment or intimate partner violence, a majority had also exhibited cruel acts toward animals (Ascione 1998; DeViney, Dickert, and Lockwood 1983). In a study of same-sex partners, Renzetti (1992) found that 38 percent of the women with pets reported maltreatment of a pet by their abusive partner. In the case of sibling abuse, the torturing or killing of a pet was considered a form of emotional abuse targeted toward a sibling (Wiehe 1997). In the case of elder abuse, little is known about the prevalence of animal maltreatment, with the exception of the self-neglect that is consistently found with animal hoarding.
It is theorized that abusers use violence against animals as a tool to control, threaten, taunt, or coerce family members. Victims have reported that abusers, in particular partners or fathers, had threatened, hurt, or killed one or more of their pets. Animals become vulnerable targets for a number of reasons. It is not uncommon for survivors of family violence to find their belongings, e.g., toys, clothing, games, music, destroyed by a family member, and in that sense, animals are victimized because they are a prized possession. It is a way that abusers can further emotionally harm victims. Threats or actual acts of abuse may be enacted to terrorize or frighten the victim, or to coerce the victim into doing something, such as staying in the relationship, etc. Animals can easily be victimized, because they generally cannot fight back, nor can they report such actions to the authorities. For human survivors of abuse, witnessing the abuse of one’s own pet compounds the trauma of living in a violent home. Signs of pet abuse or peticide may also serve as a marker for lethality in abusive relationships and should, therefore, be taken very seriously by authorities.
Second, juvenile offenders, particularly those displaying violent behaviors, often have exhibited cruelty toward animals throughout childhood. Many young offenders are diagnosed with conduct disorder, which is defined by the DSM-IV as ‘‘a repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others or major age-appropriate societal norms or rules are violated’’ (American Psychiatric Association 1994: 90). As a common symptom of conduct disorder, research suggests that abuse of animals may occur early in childhood, before other symptoms of conduct disorder emerge. Therefore, when young children exhibit cruel behavior toward animals, it should not be ignored, for it may serve as a marker for more destructive behavior to come in the future (Ascione 2001). Other common symptoms exhibited by young people with conduct disorder include fire setting, destruction of property, bullying, and cruel acts toward people.
Studies reveal that the motivations for youth engaging in cruel behavior toward animals are varied (Ascione, Thompson, and Black 1997). In some cases, youth participate in cruelty as a result of peer pressure, to lessen boredom or depression, to escape an animal phobia, or to incite an animal to self-injury. In other cases, youth engage in animal abuse as a more direct result of being exposed to interpersonal violence. Children may kill an animal to protect it from being tortured by someone else or may do so as a result of modeling the behavior of others. Animals may also be harmed during play, as the child reenacts violence he or she has previously observed. Some children are forced into hurting an animal by another person or may abuse or threaten to abuse an animal to terrorize a sibling, etc. Children who abuse animals are often abused and neglected themselves. Such children are exposed to corporal punishment and physical and sexual abuse and have witnessed domestic violence. The cycle of violence is then displaced onto helpless animals.
In addition to being an indicator of child maltreatment, cruelty toward animals by children may serve as a rehearsal for violence against humans later in life and should not be minimized. Psychological evaluations of children should consistently include an assessment of propensity toward animal abuse, thereby providing the best opportunity for early intervention and delinquency prevention.
Third, concern over animals may prevent some family members from seeking help or leaving an abusive relationship. In a study of women residing at a domestic violence shelter in Utah, Ascione (1998) found that 18 percent of the women with pets had reported that concern over the welfare of their animals had prevented them from seeking shelter sooner. Women were concerned about the safety of the animals and having to find another home for their pets in order to find safe, suitable housing for themselves. In addition, some women were concerned about having to place a pet with a neighbor or having to abandon a pet to keep it secure from the abusive partner. Since most domestic violence shelters do not have provisions for animals or collaborative arrangements with animal welfare organizations, these findings suggest the critical need for the development of such partnerships.
Fourth, animals may be helpful in the therapeutic process to help heal the trauma of family violence. Animal-assisted therapy is used successfully with both children and adults in a variety of settings. Also referred to as ‘‘pet therapy,’’ animal-assisted therapy has been helpful to patients suffering from terminal illnesses, disabilities, depression, and other mental illnesses and/or behavior problems. Animals have also been utilized in a variety of ways to help the elderly. Pet therapy has many therapeutic benefits. It can help child and adult offenders rebuild empathy and compassion. It can help reduce the effects of social isolation. For young children who have been abused and neglected or have witnessed repetitive acts of violence, pet therapy can offer an opportunity to reestablish trust and help victims identify and disclose their feelings.
In summary, animal mistreatment is a significant social problem that needs to be addressed with as much fervor as other criminal justice concerns. Like family members, animals are physically assaulted, sexually abused, and neglected. Some are tortured and killed. Understanding that animal abuse may serve as a marker for other forms of family violence should elevate the level of concern. Until recently, these two issues have been dealt with as discrete problems by law enforcement, mental health professionals, animal welfare officials, veterinarians, and others concerned. Researchers call for more formal collaboration between animal welfare professionals, law enforcement, and protective agencies, as well as cross-training about the co-occurring problems. Few family violence programs address the issue of animal mistreatment concurrently with the problems associated with family violence. Few animal welfare programs engage protective agencies or family violence specialists in their response to investigate abuse and neglect or to rescue animals. It is imperative that a continued investment be made to explore the connection in greater depth.
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