What The Wild Things Are

Understandings of Self, Awareness, and Mental Health in an Ever-Changing World

Relationship advice revisited: Should you treat people like the family dog?

How we treat animals tells us something about ourselves.

Recently an article was written advising people to treat their partner like they treat the family dog. It was posited that we had much to learn from the joy of a pet-owner relationship that we could take into our other relationships to create more joy there as well. The only caveat to that article is that it presupposes that people have a loving, kind relationship with their pet - one that brings both pet and pet owner joy and fulfillment.


Over the past number of years, more and more attention has been paid to the link between animal and human maltreatment. This attention is relatively new - before 1990, only six states had felony provisions in their animal-cruelty laws; now 46 do. As recent as 2008, California voters passed a law requiring farms to give animals space to stand up, turn around, and stretch their limbs.  And we still have a ways to go: in just April of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law that outlawed the distribution of videos depicting graphic animal cruelty for entertainment, citing free speech.

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But how we treat animals may not just be a matter of ethics and having empathy for the animal. There is a mounting body of evidence about the link between abuse of animals and serious crimes against other humans, such as domestic violence, spousal abuse, rape, drug trafficking, and homicide. In fact, the link between animal abuse and interpersonal violence is becoming so well established that many U.S. communities now cross-train social-service and animal-control agencies in how to recognize signs of animal abuse as possible indicators of other abusive behaviors. For example, in homes where there was domestic violence or physical abuse of children, the incidence of animal cruelty is close to 90 percent.


Research is bearing out what organizations such as PETA and the SPCA have known for a long time: there is a strong link between how we treat animals and how we treat each other, our fellow humans. Research is only capable of looking at individuals and their behaviors; in other words, if a person abuses an animal, what the likelihood is of that person abusing another person. It turns out that likelihood is pretty high - even for children and adolescents. It also turns out, interestingly enough, that one of the most promising methods for healing those whose empathic pathways have been stunted by things like repeated exposure to animal cruelty is, poetically enough, having such victims work with animals.


The question that remains is one related to animal cruelty at a societal level. In other words, is it possible that something similar might hold true for us on a larger scale? While most of us do not participate directly in the abusive and cruel treatment of animals raised for meat, for example, is it possible that our societal participation in the cruelty and abuse is affecting (and has an affect on) the way that we govern ourselves or treat other cultures or people? Many people might say this is a stretch, and certainly it would be difficult to measure. Difficult to measure, but perhaps not so difficult to imagine.

 

At the moment our human world is based on the suffering and destruction of millions of non-humans. To perceive this and to do something to change it in personal and public ways is to undergo a change of perception akin to a religious conversion. Nothing can ever be seen in quite the same way again because once you have admitted the terror and pain of other species you will, unless you resist conversion, be always aware of the endless permutations of suffering that support our society.
-Arthur Conan Doyle

 

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

 

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco.

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