Can We Find a Link Between Animal Abuse and Violent Crimes?

Animal abuse is often a red flag that other criminal acts are taking place -- or may in the future.


Editor’s Note: Personal injury lawyer Richard Console has managed his firm, Console & Hollawell, since 1994. He often writes on topics he feels passionate about, taking a stance on major social issues and legal happenings. He wrote this in response to Liz Acosta’s piece, “Can Understanding Violence Against Animals Help Us End Violence Against Women?”

When we hear horrific news headlines about violent crimes, it’s no surprise that we are saddened and sickened by the misfortune that those around us suffer. For any caring society, it is natural to ask why these horrible things are able to happen. Why didn’t someone do something sooner to stop a violent individual from committing a horrible crime?

Often, when a violent crime occurs on a massive scale –- when a person commits serial murders or a mass shooting -– certain patterns of behavior became evident long before. Among perpetrators of many types of violent crimes, one characteristic has consistently emerged: a history of animal abuse.

The toll of animal abuse

Animal cruelty happens every single day, and there is no accurate way to tell how many instances go unreported. Animals can’t call 911 or share the shameful secret of abuse with an acquaintance. They can only hope that someone -– a neighbor, a passerby, a veterinarian -– happens to notice the signs of cruelty before it’s too late.

When animals do survive abuse, the trauma may still take an emotional toll, just as it might affect a human. Abusers don’t only harm the animal in the moment that the violence occurs; they may be creating lasting damage. Abused animals may display aggressive tendencies long after the abuse. This is how animal abuse goes beyond a disgraceful act of violence done behind closed doors and becomes a danger to all of us and a real threat to public safety.

A 2010 New York Times article noted the link between dogfighting and serious crimes, including illegal firearms possession, drug trafficking, rape, and murder. As shocking and tragic as animal cruelty is, there are plenty of reasons for us as a society to put an end to this violence.

Stopping animal abuse — for humans’ sake

When we talk about animal cruelty, we’re often talking about hurting another living thing purely for enjoyment and a sense of control –- an experience that is far different from hunting animals for food, pelts, or population control.

Psychology and criminology research shows that people who commit violent acts against animals do not stop there, but often expand their deeds to affect humans. With more than 1,000 instances of animal abuse reported each year in the United States and the likelihood that many more are never discovered, one thing we can say with certainty is that there is too much violence going on, period.

But many states are still much more lenient than you might imagine. In New Jersey, certain violations of a general law prohibiting needless killing, abuse, or cruelty toward an animal result in a fine of $250 to $1,000 and may carry a jail sentence of six months and community service for up to 30 days. Many animal welfare advocates say these punishments are not harsh enough.

Animal abuse starts young

Many examples where violence toward animals sent up tragically unnoticed red flags involved young people. “Can you call a nine-year-old a psychopath?” asked the New York Times, reporting on the controversial question of whether children identified as “callous-unemotional” can –- or should -– be labeled with the condemning diagnosis of a personality disorder widely considered untreatable.

But what else can you call actions such as impaling, hanging, setting on fire, beating to death, or otherwise torturing animals, if not indications of psychopathy? There’s nothing “normal” about this behavior. “Children who abuse animals are sending out clear warning signs that they pose a risk to themselves as well as to others,” reported the Humane Society. Animal cruelty isn’t a just a phase that children or adolescents will grow out of –- unless by “grow out of,” you mean “graduate to human victims.”

The link between violence toward animals and violence toward humans is so strong that the American Humane Association reports that 70 percent of animal abusers had a history of other criminal behavior, according to an ambitious 20-year study published in 1997. Of these 70 percent of abusers, as many as 44 percent had committed acts of violence against humans.

Perhaps even more frightening is that these young people are so, well, young. Child animal abusers begin their reigns of terror at the median age of only six and a half, according to the American Counseling Association blog. These kids should be playing tag. They should be learning to read or ride a bicycle. They shouldn’t be hurting animals.

Animal abuse and child and domestic abuse

Researchers in New Jersey determined that 88 percent of cases of child physical abuse studied involved animal cruelty as well, according to the ASPCA. This cruelty can include threatening, hurting, or even killing family pets as a means of controlling a family member or as a form of retribution.

It’s clear that animal cruelty becomes part of the vicious cycle of abuse found in these families, but exactly why and how the animal abuse occurs is still unclear. Initiators of abuse may begin their violence toward animals and graduate to harming human family members, or they may target defenseless animals after the assaults on a spouse or children have already begun. Abused victims may in turn hurt animals, either as a way of venting frustration or gaining some semblance of control, or because violent behavior has become normalized as part of the abusive family’s dysfunctional routine.

Animal abuse in a home is a major red flag that violence toward humans may also be occurring. If we want to put an end to child and domestic abuse, thoroughly investigating instances of animal cruelty and cracking down on perpetrators can help.

Animal abuse and sexual assault

You might be surprised to find a connection between animal cruelty and sexual assault against humans, but the statistics are frightening. One research study showed that 48 percent of rapists and 30 percent of child molesters abused animals during childhood and adolescence, according to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. If this abuse toward animals had been treated as a serious offense, perhaps the crimes against humans would never have occurred at all.

In another study, 36 percent of rapists admitted to committing violence against animals during childhood, and another 46 percent said they had abused animals during adolescence, the government agency reports. These statistics are a clear indication that animal cruelty is not an isolated problem.

Animal abuse and homicide

Murder is probably the best-known act of violence associated with animal cruelty, largely due to portrayals on television crime shows. If you have a strong enough stomach, the Animal Legal Defense Fund lists cruelty against animals by Jeffrey Dahmer and other serial killers.

“The line separating an animal abuser from someone capable of committing human abuse is much finer than most people care to consider,” said “People abuse animals for the same reasons they abuse people. Some of them will stop with animals, but enough have been proven to continue on to commit violent crimes to people that it’s worth paying attention to.”

When we talk about animal cruelty, we talk about a violent, brutal crime that often receives little or no punishment, one that is not only morally revolting but also presents a concrete danger to all of our families. It’s time to take it seriously.

Read more articles about crimes against animals:

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