All About Animals: Secondary Teachers: Cruelty to Animals, Violence to Humans

According to a 1997 study, people who abused animals were five times more likely than others to have a criminal record and four times more likely to have a record of violent crime.

The link between cruelty to animals and violence towards humans is becoming common knowledge in the US but is only just getting a foot-hold here in Britain. While many of the examples in this sheet come from America, the warnings they hold are applicable world-wide.

Wise Words
“One thing I have frequently observed in children is that when they have got possession of any poor creature, they are apt to use it ill; they often torment and treat very roughly young birds, butterflies and other such poor animals which fall into their hands – and that with a seeming kind of pleasure. This, I think, should be watched in them, and if they incline to any such cruelty, they should be taught the contrary usage, for the custom of tormenting and killing beasts will, by degrees, harden their minds even towards men ?”
– John Locke, 1705

Animal Killers Kill People, Too
In 1975, Michael Skalel bludgeoned Martha Moxley to death at the age of 15. Before that attack, he beat a squirrel to death with the same kind of weapon and erected the animal’s body over a golf hole.

Studies on what motivates a killer indicate that Skalel was following a common pattern of violence. According to FBI profilers, the American Psychiatric Association, law enforcement officials in the US and child advocacy organisations, people who hurt animals are likely to move on to even bigger “game” – their fellow humans. Cruelty to animals is considered one of three symptoms that predict the development of a psychopath. Says Robert Ressler, founder of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit, “These are the kids who never learned it was wrong to poke out a puppy’s eyes”.

Many infamous killers “practiced” on animals:

  • John Venables and Robert Thompson were reported to have tortured animals before they went on to kill toddler Jamie Bulger.
  • Thomas Hamilton shot 16 children and a teacher at their school in Dunblane in 1996. In his youth, he had spent hours trying to squash rabbits under the wheel of his car.
  • Albert De Salvo (“The Boston Strangler”) killed 13 women between 1962 and 1963. He said that in his youth, he trapped dogs and cats in crates and then shot arrows into them.
  • Carroll Edward Cole, who was convicted of five murders and accused of 30 more, was executed in the US in 1985. He said his first act of violence was the strangulation of a puppy.
  • Renowned cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer confessed to the childhood killings of his neighbour’s cats and dogs.
  • Brenda Spencer was 16 when she fired more than 40 shots from her bedroom window into the school playground next door, killing two children. She had repeatedly abused cats and dogs, often setting their tails alight.
  • Kip Kinkel killed his parents and two classmates. He had a history of animal abuse and torture, having boasted about blowing up a cow and killing cats, squirrels and other animals by putting firecrackers into their mouths.
  • Luke Woodham stabbed his mother to death and embarked on a playground killing spree. He had already tortured and killed his own dog, Sparkle, calling the killing “a thing of beauty”.

Dr Howard Koplewicz, director of the Child Study Center at New York University said, “Whenever I read about someone committing a horrible crime against an animal and getting off with a slap on the wrist because ‘it was just a cat’, I become sick with dread because I know that as despicable as the acts may be that they’ve already committed, these people aren’t finished yet. They’re just getting warmed up”.

While America’s lax gun laws allow children more opportunities to commit violent acts, here in the UK the principle remains true: Children who are cruel to animals are more likely to grow into violent adults.

Wise Words
“[T]he ethic of reverence for life makes no distinction between higher and lower, more precious and less precious lives.”
– Albert Schweitzer, 1965

Animal Abuse and Domestic Abuse
Of 23 British families with a history of animal neglect, 83 per cent had been identified by experts as having children at risk of abuse or neglect. In one study of battered woman, 57 per cent of those with pets said their partners had harmed or killed their animals. One in four said they stayed with the abuser because they feared leaving the pet behind.

In the US, animal control officers in some states are trained to recognise signs of child abuse as well. In 1993, California enshrined this in law. The bill’s sponsor, Steve Effman, said, “We can’t afford to ignore the connection any longer”.

Animal Abuse Is Not Normal
Animal abuse is not a normal part of growing up. Tying fireworks to a cat’s tail or beating a dog are not symptoms of fun but rather a clear sign of a seriously disturbed psyche. These children have the potential for future violence – towards other children and later towards any member of society.

Because animals cannot report their own abuse and can do little to fight back, they are the perfect “practice” victims for those who tend towards violence. Sadly, because animals are seen as “property” or a part of the furniture, the abuse may go on right under the eyes of parents, friends and neighbours who tacitly support this abuse by failing to stop it.

Children who come from violent backgrounds are more likely to display such behaviour, but it isn’t always that simple. Case studies have brought to light a multitude of issues that may have led a child towards cruelty to animals, but some issues recur in many case studies: parental alcoholism, feelings of neglect and being unloved, domestic violence, overly domineering parent(s), sexual and/or physical abuse within the home, lack of attention and/or affection and rejection. However, according to Fernando Tapia, professor of psychiatry at the University of Missouri, “The etiological background of gross parental neglect, brutality, rejection and hostility seems very common, although not essential.” Certainly, some violent children come from loving homes where other siblings are perfectly well adjusted. In Tapia’s research, a number of these cases were explained away by physical illnesses which had caused mild brain damage.

Spotting Signs and Acting
Teachers can often spot the signs of a potentially violent child. Signs include aggression towards their peers, cruelty to animals, social isolation and an interest in fire.

Alan Brantley of the FBI’s Behavioural Sciences Unit believes that cruelty to animals and cruelty to humans can be seen as a continuum. As a child progresses along this continuum, there may be an acting out against inanimate objects. Sometimes stuffed animals are mutilated, but this violent tendency may begin to show in writing or drawings as well. The next phase, according to Special Agent Brantley, is usually acting out against animals.

If this is true of a pupil, his or her parents should be warned that cruelty to animals is not normal or “fun” and should serve as an immediate sign of a severely troubled child.

Treat any animal cruelty as a serious transgression, never a harmless prank. Speak to the pupil’s parents, explaining the seriousness of his or her actions. You may consider recommending counselling for that pupil. In the classroom, encourage compassion and respect for animals. There are many useful curriculum-linked resources that can help you on this subject. A field trip to a local animal sanctuary can provide an invaluable lesson in kindness and care of animals. Whatever course you choose to take, don’t ignore the abuse.

Prevention Is Better Than Cure
We believe that many acts of violence can be prevented if we simply teach kindness and compassion towards animals from an early age. From showing a child how to put an animal’s needs first to discussing the larger social issues, every teacher can play a part in spreading the compassionate message and encouraging children to look upon the animals with whom we share this planet with respect, awe and love.

Contact your MP with this information and ask him or her to make changes: stiffer penalties and psychological counselling for anyone convicted of cruelty to animals.