Back in 1885 veterinarian Joseph Perry referred to the dog poisoner as “that fiend incarnate.” Even in the Victorian era, the poisoning of specific dogs and indiscriminate dropping of poisoned food was already well known and a health issue. Dog poisoning happens regularly all over the world and in all eras of history, and the perpetrators are often never caught.
The psychology of poisoning is not well studied, even when it comes to human victims. Sharon Gwantney-Brant reports that about 75 percent of malicious animal poisonings target dogs, particularly large breeds such as German Shepherds and Great Danes. So what is going on in the mind of a dog poisoner?
The pattern seems to be that people stew over something that annoys them about how neighborhood dogs are behaving until it becomes an obsession and might expand to a hatred of all dogs. The person might not lack empathy overall, but like most people they divide animals into different categories. As such, they may come to classify dogs as “pests” or “vermin” that should be eliminated.
For example, in 2012 landscaper Kenneth M. Hyland finished cutting the lawn of a union building and then allegedly covered the lawn in a bucketful of hot dogs soaked in antifreeze. He was reportedly angry about dogs pooping on the lawn. In 2011 an Australian woman was caught pushing meat mixed with snail poison into a yard because the dog’s barking was annoying her. Pet-abuse.com lists poisoning as an abuse category and scenarios like these appear over and over and over. But a lot of people live near dogs that annoy them … and very few of them turn to dog murder.
Poisoners are not well studied and their specific motives are often not known. Modern research suggests that lack of empathy overall is not always the problem, but rather that some people decide that certain people or animals do not deserve kindness. So to them, poisoning a dog seems no different to laying bait for a rat infestation.
Some investigators suggest that the poisoner tends to be a person who avoids direct confrontation and lacks faith in authorities to help deal with conflicts. And when dog poisoners are caught they often defy profiling based on superficial features — men and women are equally represented, and they run the gamut of society from habitual criminals to upper class individuals.
One famous 1937 case involved Mrs. Juliet Tuttle, who was driven around by her chauffeur on trips where she would get out at various houses and poison dogs, often right in their own fenced yards. She was a wealthy Park Avenue widow who donated generously to humane societies, and her friend frankly disbelieved the accusations at first. When she was finally caught in the act and tried, chauffeurs reported that she had been a roaming dog killer for nine years — apparently killing those animals she thought were not being well cared for, although their owners strenuously disagreed.
Poisoners kill in a way that separates them from the painful consequences for the dog and his or her family. As the famous Milgram Experiment showed, the further is person is from the direct violence of their actions, the more willing they will be to cause harm. So a person that might never strike an animal might be willing to fire at one with a gun, or to leave a trap or bait that acts without them even witnessing the act. This distance allows people to put aside whatever level of empathy they might be capable of.
Combined with this, poisoning cases are often never solved because of the lengths it takes to prove poison was the case of death, identify the source, and determine who planted the bait. Especially if the poisoner is indiscriminate and not targeting specific dogs near their home, it can be extremely difficult to catch them in the act. Poisoning of dogs and people may occur more often than is currently appreciated, as the necessary tests are only done when there is a reason to be suspicious, and all poison tests are limited in scope and might miss unusual toxins.
Obviously you should try to prevent dogs from eating anything found on the ground or otherwise from an unknown source. Food on the ground should be treated with suspicion, especially if it is not the sort of food likely to be trash, like uncooked or whole objects. Cheese, meatballs, and cat food seem to be the poisoners favorites. Poison often has green coloring added to it or a crystalline consistency.
If baiting is for official pest control purposes, it should be carried out in a manner not accessible to dogs and marked with signs from the pest control agency. Any other potentially poisonous material should be reported to the police. Avoid going near it or touching it, move it with thick gloves or utensils only if absolutely necessary. If there is suspicious behavior around your yard, supervise the dog and consider installing a video camera, as video evidence is one of the few ways to establish who is leaving poisoned bait.
Poisoning is fortunately extremely rare, so it is really not something most dog owners need to worry about. And when it does occur it is almost always accidental. But we all need to store the possibility of deliberate poisoning in their back of our minds, just in case. And remember, when rational people encounter this sort of problem, we call the authorities rather than taking the law into our own hands.
What’s your experience? Have you had a dog deliberately poisoned, or do you know someone who has? What do you think drove the people to do it?
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About the author: Emily Kane is a New Zealand-born animal behaviorist of the throw-back radical behaviorist type, albeit with a holistic-yuppie-feminist-slacker twist. She spent many years as an animal behavior researcher and is now more of an indoor paper-pushing researcher. Her early dog-related education came from Jess the Afghan Hound and Border Collies Bandit and Tam. It is now being continued by her own dogs and extended dog family and some cats (and her three aquatic snails Gala, Granny, and Pippin — they think of themselves as dog-esque).