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Amy Johnson Mar 16, 2010

Children Who Abuse Animals

“One of the most dangerous things that can happen to a child is to kill or torture an animal and get away with it.” ~ Margaret Mead. We know that homes with family members who have domestic violence charges often have an animal abuser in the home. Sometimes those animal abusers are children. Statistics show that 6 ½ is the median age for the onset of harming animals…which is earlier than bullying others, acts of cruelty to people, vandalism or fire setting. For professionals, animal abuse by a child should be considered a warning that a child may be experiencing some form of psychological or physical distress.

The media has reported on serial killers’ initial practice with pets. Here is a short list of famous killers and their disturbing and sordid beginning.

  • Jeffrey Dahmer is reported to have impaled and killed neighbor’s pets

  • Patrick Sherril stole pets, tied them up and allowed his own dogs to mutilate them – later murdered 14 co-workers before killing himself

  • David Berkowitz (Son of Sam) shot his neighbor’s Labrador retriever

  • Albert DeSalvo (Boston Strangler) shot arrows into boxes of trapped cats and dogs

  • Carroll Edmund Cole claimed his first violent act was strangling a puppy. Later he murdered 35 people

  • Keith Hunter Jesperson (Happy Face Killer) began his life of violence by throwing a cat against the pavement and then strangling it to death

There are many more examples. While most serial killers have animal abuse or torture in common, the reverse is not necessarily true. Just because a child has abused an animal does not predict a future as a mass murderer. What we need to do is consider why children abuse animals. Frank Ascione is a pioneer in the research of linking animal abuse and domestic violence. He reports that children’s compassion towards animals is related to their empathy towards humans. He also found a strong correlation between those who have committed cruelty acts to animals with an impulsive character. I work with court adjudicated youth and approximately 30% of them have harmed an animal. Because most youth know that this is socially unacceptable, many abusers do it privately and deny their participation in these cruel acts.

Ascione’s work included interviewing youth who have committed acts of violence against their pets or other animals. Here is what they said:

  • curiosity of exploration (usually by a young or developmentally delayed child)

  • peer pressure (peers encourage as part of initiation)

  • mood enhancement (ie relieves boredom)

  • sexual gratification

  • forced abuse (coerced into animal abuse by someone more powerful)

  • attachment to animal (child kills to prevent torture by another)

  • animal phobias

  • identification with child’s abuser (victimized child trying to regain control)

  • posttraumatic play

  • imitation (copying parent’s discipline)

  • self-injury (using animal inflict pain on his own body)

  • rehearsal for interpersonal violence (practicing on pets before engaging in human violence)

  • vehicle for emotional abuse (to frighten sibling, etc.)

For more information on this topic, please visit the Society and Animals Forum (formerly Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals)

Amy Johnson is a counselor, lecturer, founder, and program director of the non-profit organization, Teacher's Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together.
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