Protecting All Creatures, Great and Small

  • Article by: JEANNINE MOGA, M.S.W. and L.G.S.W. , Star Tribune Sales and Marketing
  • Updated: August 27, 2007 - 11:41 AM

Interpersonal violence and violence to animals are not dissimilar. There are many resources available for those in need of assistance or for people interested in learning about prevention.

Originally published in TC Dog in 2007.

A Michigan man is facing criminal charges after allegedly assaulting his wife, then stabbing the family dog and letting it bleed to death on the bathroom floor. The dog reportedly bit the husband on the shoulder after hearing the woman scream, her husband's hands wrapped around her neck. The 2-year old dog paid for his act of protection with his life. According to the police report, the couple's 8-year-old son witnessed the brawl.

This recent case, as shocking as it is to read, is just one of countless incidents of animal cruelty occurring in American families. According to the Humane Society of the United States, 1,373 cases of animal cruelty were reported in 2003, and almost 60 percent of these cases were considered "intentional."

The abuse and neglect of animals is both prevalent and underreported -and we need only read the paper to see that it also occurs locally.

Recent headlines like, "Teenagers admit lighting turtle on fire-twice," "Man snaps pups' necks, threatens to kill girlfriend," and "Two teens in custody for allegedly killing horses, cow," are especially disturbing because they arose in our own backyard.

Those of us who share our lives and homes with animals may find the intentional infliction of pain and distress on an innocent victim deplorable, at best. And we are not alone. A recent survey of over 10,000 Americans revealed that 96 percent of those surveyed demand harsher penalties for those who abuse animals (American Humane Association, 2006). How, then, is it possible for this kind of violence to occur in our community?

If this question sounds familiar to you, perhaps that familiarity stems from similar conversations about children-those most frequently mentioned as innocent victims of violence. Interestingly, the movement to protect children from abuse and neglect closely parallels the animal welfare movement. Both movements developed in the latter half of the 19th century, when social justice reformers broadened the scope of their advocacy to marginalized groups (including slaves, children, prisoners, and animals).1 As a result, our cultural and legal definitions of "humane" are partially based on ideas about what constitutes the ethical and moral treatment of animals.

However, conversations about family violence rarely include discussion of what is "humane," and the widespread concern over violence in our communities frequently excludes the very real incidence of animal abuse and neglect occurring in American households.

While many of us have friends or family members who have suffered violence at the hand of a parent, partner, or sibling, we may not recognize family violence in the form of a dog who is tortured by a spouse, a cat who is killed by an enraged parent, or the horse whose is shot to punish the children.

But as animals have become integral members of our families (research reveals that more American households now have animals than have children, and the majority of people in those households consider their animals to be full-fledged family members(2), they have also been placed in the line of familial fire.

And as shown by the provocative case opening this article, 15 percent of 2003's "intentional" cruelty cases also involved another form of family violence (such as child abuse, partner abuse, or elder abuse).3 What social scientists now know is that interpersonal violence and violence to animals are not, in fact, dissimilar.

Cruelty to nonhuman animals is strongly linked to cruelty to humans in numerous ways: * Childhood cruelty to animals, if left untreated, can be a precursor to deviant and violent behavior in adulthood.4 * Children who experience abuse in the home are more likely to act abusively toward a companion animal.5

* Approximately half of women with a history of being abused by a partner or spouse have also seen their companion animal(s) threatened, hurt, or killed by an abuser.6

* Many women in violent relationships delay seeking shelter for fear that their animal(s) will be hurt or killed by their abuser.7

Clearly, membership in families brings animals into the tangled web of family relationships, where they are at increased risk for violence simply because they are present. As such, animals can serve as sentinels of family crisis ("canaries in a coal mine" so to speak), signaling to friends, neighbors, and associates that a family is at risk. Animals can also become scapegoats, subjected to neglect and violence by abusers who seek to control, hurt, and intimidate the family members most closely bonded to those animals.

Despite the danger that may come from living with a human family, animals often continue to be safe harbors-a consistent source of love and support, especially for adults and children whose lives are filled with violence and fear.

And so we owe it to our animal brethren to learn more about how to prevent violence in all its forms.

Moreover, we owe it to ourselves, because violence against animals puts all of us at risk. The good news is that we all have the power to advocate for, and develop, a more humane community.

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