When the FBI began to compile a database of animal abuse crimes at the beginning of this year, the Washington Post reported the development as “A Big Win for Animals.” Other journals similarly focused on the added protection afforded those four-legged and other creatures. As accurate as these may be, the FBI created the database for a decidedly different reason, citing the link between animal cruelty and violence toward humans.
The evidence is overwhelming. The most colorful examples are those of serial killers and school shooters. Albert Desalvo (the Boston Strangler), Jeffrey Dahmer, David Berkowitz (Son of Sam,) Lee Boyd Malvo (the Washington Sniper), Charles Manson, and Ted Bundy all had “animal backgrounds.” The two Columbine high school shooters, along with the shooters in each of the six other school shootings in the U.S. between 1997 and 2001, also began with animals.
The examples that really prove the connection, however, are those of “ordinary” killers and batterers reflected in a myriad of studies. A 2001-2004 investigation by the Chicago Police Department, for example, showed 65% of those arrested for animal crimes had been arrested for battery against another person. A Canadian police review of crime records in 2002 turned up a higher percentage – they found 70% of people charged with cruelty to animals also had other reported incidents of violent behavior. In an Australian investigation, 61.5% of convicted animal abuse offenders had also committed an assault, 17% had committed sexual abuse, and 8% had arson convictions.
A 1997 study by Northeastern University compared animal abusers against a control group, and found them to be five times more likely to commit violence against people. And in a 1986 study, fully half of rapists and over one-fourth of pedophiles had also engaged in acts of cruelty to animals.
Then there is the very strong link to the “domestic” type of violence. The Humane Society cites a study that shows animals were abused in 88 percent of homes where child physical abuse was present. In addition to the correlation between animal and domestic violence, threats to harm the family pets are a technique commonly used to keep victims quiet and exert other control over the household. A study of women seeking shelter at a safe house showed 71 percent of those with pets affirmed their partner had threatened or harmed the animals.
From one standpoint, the statistics are not surprising. Animals are living beings that can experience pain and distress, which everyone can recognize as the same as feelings experienced by humans. So those insensitive to animals are “already part of the way there,” in some sense. Indeed, careful studies show that children who simply grow up around abused animals can become desensitized and are more likely to commit violence against humans later on.
Then, of course, those inclined to abuse living things have a much easier time with animals, who are relatively defenseless, have no way of reporting abuse, and are not nearly as well protected by laws which are themselves not well enforced.
Some animals, and dogs in particular, can have relationships with owners and others with much the same characteristics as those between humans. Cruelty in such situations is even more similar, in an important sense, to violence against a human. The first convict listed in a US state abuse registry beat his dog (to death) because it was “disobedient.”
And then there is gratuitous abuse. As Dr. Randall Lockwood, a psychologist who has written extensively on the link between animal abuse and human violence, writes, “Those who abuse animals for no obvious reason are budding psychopaths. They have no empathy and only see the world as what it’s going to do for them.”
The special character of animal crimes has been recognized by important philosophers. Mahatma Ghandi once said, “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” And according to Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher devoted to understanding the moral underpinnings of human behavior, “compassion for animals is intimately associated with goodness of character, and it may be confidently asserted that he who is cruel to living creatures cannot be a good man.”
On January 1, Tennessee became the first state to begin compiling a registry of animal abusers. New York City and several other localities have started their own registries, and proposals are now pending in 14 other states to create similar types of databases.
Each of the real or proposed registries in the U.S. makes it much more difficult for abusers to own animals. In one state after another, however, proponents emphasize the public safety benefit of such registries – keeping track of animal abusers can help prevent future violence against all living things.
Among the pending proposals, the one in New Jersey is particularly serious and squarely focused on the link to violence against humans. All abusers living or working in the state must register, under penalty of law, if they were convicted of an animal crime in the past or going forward — whether inside the state or in any other jurisdiction. Once in the registry, a convict remains for 15 years before they can appeal for removal.
In the proposed New Jersey registry, data would be made public according to the degree of the offense. Those convicted of “lesser abuse,” for example, would have their records available to law enforcement and public and private animal-related agencies, but they would not appear on a public database. (Studies show not all abusers are hard-wired. In some examples, early intervention can make a difference, and a public photograph can prove counterproductive to that.) In cases of especially serious abusers, the NJ proposal requires that certain agencies and/or individuals be individually notified.
Along with the effort to track convicts, some advocates are pressing hard for the very obvious step of increasing penalties for animal abuse and, more importantly, increasing the prosecution and conviction rates for those crimes. The Humane Society and the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals both take this tack. In Connecticut, the ASPCA promotes Desmond’s law, which would place a special advocate in state courts to represent animals’ interests, providing information and records to the judge.
Addressing laws on the books and existing prosecution practices is a different approach than registration, but the intention is the same. Abuse of an animal is in fundamentally the same crime category as violence against a human, and governmental practices should reflect that reality.