Why the Wild Things Are

Animals and nature in the lives of children.

Do Mass Killers Start Out by Harming Pets?

Animal abuse may be an early warning sign.

The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT joins a long list of mass shootings.  The scenario is by now sickeningly familiar: a troubled teenage boy unleashes mayhem in an instant, taking down children, adults, and ultimately himself in a hail of bullets.  After the shock, we are left to puzzle over the early warning signs missed, the clues overlooked.  While there are no easy answers, animal abuse may be one of those warning signs. 

Young children might pull the cat’s tail or yank the dog’s hair out of curiosity or mischief.  These can be teachable moments for parents or other adults to build empathy by pointing out the animal’s feelings and needs.   However, when a child of any age shows intentional cruelty toward animals that is repeated, severe and without remorse, this should be taken very seriously.  It is not only crucial to keep animals safe, but childhood animal abuse is linked to other forms of violence and psychopathology.  A child who abuses animals requires immediate intervention and treatment.  Animal abuse is often the first manifestation of serious emotional turmoil that may escalate into extreme violence, such as mass killing. Here’s why psychologists are increasingly focused on animal abuse in childhood as a warning sign.

Troubled children are much more likely to mistreat animals.  While less than 5% of U. S. children are estimated to have intentionally hurt an animal, for children at mental health clinics, animal cruelty rates range from 10 to 25%.  Prof. Frank Ascione at the University of Denver and Prof. Arnold Arluke at Northeastern University estimate that one in four children and adolescents with conduct disorder have abused animals.  Children who have been physically abused and exposed to domestic violence are at even higher risk.  In an assessment of 1433 children ages 6 to 12, Ascione found that among abused children, 60% had abused animals. 

Animal abuse is often the first sign of serious disturbance among adolescent and adult killers.  On Oct. 1, 1997, Luke Woodham, a sophomore at Pearl High School, in a suburb of Jackson, MI, stabbed his mother to death and then opened fire on classmates with a hunting rifle, killing two girls and wounding seven other students.  Investigators later found Woodham’s account of his torture and killing of his pet dog Sparkle, which the boy described as his “first kill.”  On May 21, 1998, fifteen year old Kip Kinkel shot his parents to death before emptying three guns at his classmates in Thurston High School, Springfield, OR, leaving one dead and 26 injured.  Kip had often bragged to others at school about how he tortured animals.  Jeffrey Dahmer, Albert DeSalvo (the “Boston strangler”), David Berkowitz (the “Son of Sam”) and Carroll Edward Cole, a serial killer accused of 35 deaths, all recounted animal torture as their first violent act.  When counselors at several federal penitentiaries evaluated inmates for levels of aggression, 70% of the most violent prisoners had serious and repeated animal abuse in their childhood histories, as compared to 6% of nonaggressive prisoners in the same facilities. 

What to do? Predicting the next mass shooter is complex and imprecise.  No single factor, including animal abuse, is definitive.  We should be appropriately cautious about retrospective accounts of childhood misdeeds that can’t be independently verified.  Nevertheless, there is enough evidence to consider cruelty toward animals a red flag warning that a child or adolescent needs immediate help.  Here are some practical steps communities around the country are already taking:

Improving diagnosis.  Mental health professionals seldom ask routinely about animal abuse. Increasing awareness of the need to do so can pick up early indications of the problem.

 Cross reporting. Since animal abuse and domestic violence are linked, child protective services and animal welfare groups are training together to recognize and report both human and animal victims.

Ensuring treatment. Several states are mandating evaluation and counseling for individuals convicted of animal abuse.

When we keep animals safe from harm, we also help keep children and adults safe.

Gail F. Melson, Ph.D., is Professor of Child Development and Family Studies at Purdue University.

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