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Serious Question: How Should We Treat People Who Abuse Animals?

I believe these people are broken, and the only way to fix them is with compassion, not anger. What do you think?

 |  Jul 22nd 2013  |   61 Contributions


I can’t bear to read the endless stories about animal cruelty, online or elsewhere. I labored in rescue for decades in a large Southern state, and I saw firsthand things no one should ever see. It made me hate people. It also made me start to think about how a cruel person is created.

Without exception, the worst cases I saw in dog rescues correlated to the worst cases in human life. The animals were mangy and the people were broken. Some were hoarders, people who exhibit the saddest evidence yet that collecting something outside of oneself never solves internal problems. Many had severe addiction problems. Most had terrible money problems. All had serious empathy issues. All lacked compassion.

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These puppies have the surname Xavier (as in Xavier's School for the Gifted from X-Men) and each is named for an X-Men character. They were rescued after being put in a sealed plastic container. Image by Annie Hart/The Bill Foundation

For years, I raged at those who mistreated animals. The humans, I would repeat loudly to anyone who would listen, have a choice. The animals never do. That part is true. But the part I missed -- and it’s a rather large part -- is that I had zero empathy for the humans who inflicted their misery onto the animals. I would have done to them exactly what they did to the animal, no matter how horrid the action or inaction. Yes, I could have dragged an animal abuser behind a car. I probably would have stepped down harder on the accelerator than the abuser did. They didn’t care about the animals they hurt. I didn’t care about the abuser. That circular lack of care creates a community with no room for human empathy.

Once I spat out gum on the driveway near my home because the owner chained his dog out front with no shelter. The dog had puppies every year, which the owner did God knows what with. I tried to buy the dog from him. He said no through his toothless mouth. I called the sheriff but heard repeatedly: “Ma’am, it ain’t against the law to chain your dog.” It would be, if we had an ounce of conscience for the suffering we force onto animals. So I spit wads of gum on the man’s driveway for one year. That’s a lot of gum ... but what did I accomplish, exactly? A sore jaw and a still-angry heart.

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Patrick the Pit Bull was rescued from a garbage chute in November. Here he's looking healthy and happy.

Somewhere along the way, my compassion gene for my fellow humans woke up. I began to understand that whenever I ran across a starving animal, the human who owned that skinny horse or dog was a person starved for connection. An animal selflessly offers unconditional love, even to those who abuse it. That level of compassion can set the wounded human on tirade after tirade.

“How dare you look at me with those big, loving eyes as I beat you or deliberately starve you! How dare you wag your tail at me as I am too limited as another living being to feed you!” This is the conversation I imagine an abuser has in his head. It may not be a conscious thought, but you can be sure it is an unconscious one. They feel threatened by love coming towards them from any direction and thus have an intense need to snuff it out. A person willing to inflict pain on animals is also willing to that same thing to other people, starting with himself. This is why their personal lives are always in turmoil. With each blow they deliver to an animal, it is a strike against their own well-being.

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Rosie is an inbred Chihuahua who was rescued from a backyard breeder.

What can we do with such hatred, such a glaring lack of compassion? I can tell you that rage doesn’t work. It might in the beginning move a caring person into helpful action on behalf of the animal, but I can assure that after many years, the exhaustion of assisting so many in need coupled with anger at their awful situation completely wears you down, and then what good are you to animals?

We can do one thing. We can shift how we see abusers.

When you see a horse that looks like a walking skeleton, know the human with that horse is trapped inside a loveless human shell. When you see someone kicking a dog, know that he is so full of anger and fear that he has no room left in his heart for any love, not for himself, his family, or for a sweet dog who wants nothing more than to love him. Abused animals must become a loud siren that there is a human suffering, because if we can halt the human suffering, we could put a curb on the animal suffering.

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Luke Xavier tests his teeth after being rescued. Photo by Annie Hart/the Bill Foundation

How can you help? You get the animal to safety. You call animal control. You speak up. That’s always first. Then you remember that the abuser is an animal in need, too. You don’t have to make this out-of-control person your new best friend, but you could look into her angry eyes with compassion and say one kind word. You could see if you can place your warm hand on his cold one, and offer something to the effect that you know he is in pain.

After the animal is safely removed and if you feel it is physically safe to do so, a simple acknowledgement that you see suffering in a wounded human can move mountains in a previously stone cold heart. Or, you could do this to the abuser, if you know who she is, the next time you see her at the grocery store. If you are truly brave and kind, you could extend this mercy to all you run into, because in truth you don’t know what sorrow is theirs. We need mercy, and our animal friends deserve the most mercy of all ... but they live with humans, so we have to start with that ones in charge of their fate.

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I've rescued and fostered hundreds of dogs.

It should not fall on those of us who rescue animals from terrible situations to also provide a human hand to the abusers, but because we offer no safety net, no national deep well of compassion for humans in pain, the abusers will continue to take their wrath out on helpless animals -- because they can. You can work to tighten abuse laws, too. But as you are doing all of these strong things to help our animal friends, know that you are facing a person who is terrified, hurt, and desperately in need of human compassion.

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These are the Vicktory Dogs. They were saved from Michael Vick's dog fighting operation.

Maybe shelters should hand out pamphlets to everyone who gives up on the responsibility they promised when they chose to bring an animal into their lives. The pamphlets would have phone numbers for counselors, shamans, pastors, or addiction specialists -- anyone to help that person get back into touch with his empathy. Healthy people would no more strike an animal than they would a loved child or spouse. Healthy people do not starve a horse night after night. Healthy people do not chain dogs. Healthy people do not torture cats. Sick people do these awful things.

When you see an abused animal, commit yourself to offering a hand and get the animal relief -- now, not tomorrow. Go a step further and see what compassionate small thing you can do for the human who committed the abuse, even if you settle on praying for him for 30 days. You could anonymously send information about free counseling in your area. You could leave an anonymous, kind note instead of chewed gum on his doorstep. You could see that we are all in this together. The abused animal, the abuser and you and I are from the same tribe, and if we don’t reach out to the wounded humans among us, they will never stop hurting animals.

Why do you believe people abuse animals? What can be done about it? Let us know in the comments.

Read more from Annie Phenix:

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