Cute animal stories make us all go “awww,” and are a perennial favorite. Animal abuse stories, on the other hand, make most readers grit their teeth, shake their head, even vow vengeance on behalf of suffering critters that are unable to defend themselves.
From a cat used as blowgun target practice to a dog dragged behind a truck, the tawdry tales strike a nerve in any compassionate soul. But once the injured animal heals, or perhaps goes to a new and loving home, the public’s (and media’s) attention moves on, which is only natural given the infinite competition for limited attention spans.
That can leave some important issues lost in the shuffle, such as: Is there any proof that people who would do such things to animals also are more likely to act in violence against humans?
The answer is yes, according to the Humane Society of the United States (http://www.hsus.org), which brought its “First Strike” workshop on that topic to Bend last week, at the request of the Humane Society of Central Oregon (http://www.hsco.org).
The role of violence in popular culture is such old news, it’s taken for granted by many. (Perhaps you are old enough to remember the National Lampoon cover photo, decades ago: “Buy This Magazine or We’ll Shoot This Dog”?)
From the Wicked Witch of the West in the “Wizard of Oz” (“I’ll get you, my pretty – and your little dog, too!”) to Cruella DeVille, the villain of “101 Dalmations,” it’s a theme you don’t have to search hard to find.
Raising public awareness about the connections between animal cruelty and violence against people is the 5-year-old First Strike program’s main goal.
Police, school personnel attend local seminar
Several Redmond Police Department community service officers and Bend-La Pine School District personnel joined Humane Society staff at the 3-hour seminar, held in the new classroom facility at St. Charles Medical Center.
The workshop comes at a time when tougher state laws are taking effect, which the Animal Legal Defense Fund says makes Oregon “the first state in the nation to statutorily recognize the link between animal abuse and violence toward humans.” The changes elevate first-degree animal abuse from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class C felony for repeat animal abuses or repeat domestic violence offenders, or when the animal abuse knowingly occurs in a child’s immediate presence.
Along with data about studies that have shown the animal cruelty/human violence connection, Ginger Prevas, manager of the national organization’s First Strike program, promised to “give you guys come indicators of what to look out for” in investigating animal cruelty cases, and signs of possible child abuse or other human violence as well.
“A lot of times, animal cruelty is the first warning sign of violent behavior at a home,” Prevas said, encouraging organizations and agencies to work together and form collaborations to tackle the issue.
As the small audience introduced themselves, Troy Kerstetter, animal welfare director at the Bend shelter, said he was on hand to “find out steps, not only locally but nationally, to make this more of an issue.”
Kerstetter noted how a particularly newsworthy case of animal cruelty leaves “folks aghast” every couple of years or so, then the issue is “swept back under the carpet.”
Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, a former Deschutes County prosecutor, said the new law toughens a felony law that was put into effect in 1995 because “misdemeanors are so numerous, they are not even tracked from state to state.” A notorious animal neglect case in Astoria involving Vicki Kittles was “not bad enough to rise to the level of felony,” he said from Astoria last week.
But when someone is convicted of felony animal abuse, “at least when someone pops up, moving from Minnesota to Oregon, the prior conviction’ will show in their records, Marquis said. “It’s enormously helpful, as opposed to someone like Vicki, who went all across the United States, collected God knows how many animal neglect and abuse cases. In some cases, they gave her money to get her out of town.”
Animal-welfare groups hampered by lack of unified database
Prevas talked of how common the barrage of violence in the media is, and its impact on children.
But she also said how media reports of notorious animal abuse cases often is the only way groups such as the HSUS can track them statistically, since there’s no national tracking system, as there is with violence and other crimes against people. As a result, she said, “Sometimes, we’re just looking at a snapshot,” rather than the whole picture of what led to the act.
“Down the road,” Prevas said, groups like the Humane Society would like to see such a database created, one police and other agencies are required to report to, so that patterns can be more easily found and, perhaps, new ways to avoid such acts.
About three-fourths of all families with kids have pets, Prevas said, and surveys have found they are usually treated like a member of the family – with their owners considering themselves the mom or dad, birthdays celebrated and the like.
“Kindness toward animals is something a `macho man’ can still do, and not be seen as weak or a sissy,” Prevas noted, stepping through a media show that included quotes (President Harry Truman: “If you want a friend in politics, get a dog,”) and showed the search dogs that played a key role on Sept. 11.
But she also used recent studies and data, even woodcuts from the 1700s, to drive home the central theme: “Those who are cruel to animals, repeatedly and wantonly, may be at greatest risk of interpersonal violence.”
Serial killers and other notorious criminals often can be found to have cruelty to animals in their past: David Berkowitz, known as the “Son of Sam,” for example, killed a bird with rat poison and tortured small animals, while Jeffrey Dahmer poured motor oil into a tank of tadpoles and posted animal heads on stakes. Kip Kinkel, the Springfield High shooter, told friends he, too, tortured animals. All are seen as control fantasies – showing their power over living things – as well as the power to shock and get a rise out of people. There’s also the motive of revenge, against the
Studies find animal abuse in criminals’ past
Mental health experts in recent years have taken animal cruelty out of the category of “property crime” in their diagnostic models and moved it to “crimes against others,” as we’ve come to know that animals are sentient beings who do experience pain, Prevas explained.
One state’s SPCA study found that 97 percent of those found to have abused animals were male, and that they had a much higher likelihood of violent crime and property crime than a “control population” of the same demographics. A study last year, of prison inmates, found 20 percent of those incarcerated for non-violent crimes had animal cruelty in their past, and 56 percent of those convicted of violent crimes, Prevas said.
“Violence is violence, and violence against animals is violence,” Prevas said. “Perpetrators don’t stop to count the number of legs on their victims. They are often targets of opportunity.”
Children are inherently sympathetic to animals, the Humane Society official said, and a study of juvenile animal cruelty found most perpetrators are developmentally immature, and quite often the victim of abuse themselves.
Prevas told of a case in the 1870s in which cruelty toward a child was prosecuted under animal protection laws, because at the time, children were chattel, but animals were protected. Sometimes, animals defending a child from abuse can be beaten.
Surprisingly to some, large numbers of pets often are found in abusive homes, Prevas said, as they `convey an image of normalcy and stability.” Also, tragically, in cases of sex abuse, an animal can be threatened with harm, to gain a young victim’s silence.
Humane Society campaign targets vets, police, others
The “First Strike” media kit features detailed “Make the Connection” fact sheets on the topic that target educators, humane investigators, veterinary professionals, social service workers, and law enforcement and prosecutors, offering each segment what they need to know. There’s even a small tip sheet on 10 things teens can do to help stop animal cruelty (such as “Get help for the animal,” “and “Stop cruelty before it begins.”)
Children as young as 4 may harm animals, but such behavior is most common in adolescence, the group says. Cruelty is often associated with children who fare poorly in school and have low self-esteem and few friends. Children who are cruel to animals often are characterized as bullies and may have a history of truancy, vandalism and other antisocial behaviors.
Researchers say a child’s violence against animals often represents displaced hostility and aggression stemming from neglect or abuse of the child, or of another family member.
The material for educators responds for one issue of critics – aren’t animal welfare groups equating child abuse and animal abuse? – by saying, “Both are serious and should be investigated at first report. Because of the strong connection between animal cruelty and human violence, preventing one may also prevent the other.”
For more information, visit the Humane Society of the United States’ Website, at http://www.hsus.org .