Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Domestic Violence

Long-Term Effects of Violence Toward Animals by Youngsters

The enduring effects of inhumane education in New Zealand are very concerning

"The link"

In the past week global media has covered the killing of nonhuman animals (animals) by New Zealand youngsters as part of school activities. I wrote about this horrific situation, a perfect example of inhumane education, in an essay called "Youngsters Encouraged to Kill Possum Joeys in New Zealand" and previously in another piece titled "New Zealand Kids Kill Possums for Fun and Games." You can also see an activity in which youngsters are encouraged to partake called "smashin' vermin' at a website titled "3 Things You Can Do This Conservation Week." The second thing kids are encouraged to do is "kill a rat," and there's a most disturbing image there of a youngster getting ready to punch a rat caught in a spring trap across the lower back.

Concerning the link between inhumane education, killing sprees and wars against wildlife, and later domestic violence:

A 2007 study found that women seeking refuge at a family violence shelter were nearly 11 times more likely to report that their partner had hurt/killed their pet and that shelter women were more than four times more likely to report that their pet had been threatened (Ascione et al., 2007; Volant, Johnson, Gullone & Coleman, 2008).

In my first essay, Jasmijn de Boo, CEO of SAFE For Animals (a New Zealand organization) provided some comments about their view on possum killing and their education programs. In her statement she noted, "New Zealand has many problems with domestic abuse, depression, suicide, mental health issues, etc. As I am not a human mental health expert, I would not wish to suggest there is an association, but in my opinion, the strong focus on hunting and farming animals for human purposes does not engender respect for living beings, and stamps out any empathy that children naturally have for other sentient and vulnerable beings."

I, too, am not an expert on these matters, so I turned to them to see what they had to say. I've also had some correspondence with people who know quite a bit about the relationships between violence toward animals and violence toward humans and they've asked me to write something on what is called "the link" by researchers who study this phenomenon. Numerous scholarly research essays can be found here (please also see "Animal Cruelty and Antisocial Behavior: A Very Strong Link" about Eleonora Gullone's book called Animal Cruelty, Antisocial Behaviour, and Aggression: More than a Link). In her book Dr. Gullone writes (p. ix), "'The Link'" refers to the idea that 'acts of interpersonal violence are frequently preceded by, or co-occur with, acts of cruelty to animals, 'red flag' markers that previously were ignored."

Basically, Dr. Gullone argues that because animal cruelty is strongly linked to human cruelty, we need to make violence toward animals more worthy of moral concern and a target of intervention so that we can learn more about the etiology of human cruelty. Thus, "By positioning acts of animal abuse within the continuum of other antisocial behaviours, rather than as isolated incidents or acceptable childhood rites of passage, we can gain more progress not only in reducing animal abuse but also in improving human safety and lowering tolerance levels for all acts of aggression." (p. x)

What's happening in New Zealand?

A few people wrote me about problems with domestic violence in New Zealand, so I decided to see what I could find. I knew nothing about it but there's quite a bit of information available that truly surprised me. At the website for Women's Refuge it states, "Domestic violence is a major human rights issue across the world, and one of New Zealand’s most serious social issues. One in three women in Aotearoa will experience some form of abuse within their relationship, with many more coming dangerously close." Another report published in December 2014 calls domestic violence in New Zealand "an epidemic" while another essay published on March 21, 2017 notes that while there is much to be proud of in New Zealand, the fact is that New Zealand has "the highest rates of family violence in the developed world."

Putting a crink in the link: Let's hope kindness and compassion toward animals will beget kindness and compassion for all

“Animal abuse does not inevitably lead to interpersonal violence but we must come to a better understanding of the circumstances in which it does – for the sake of both animals and people.” (Frank Ascione)

Let me be very clear. I am not saying that animal abuse necessarily or always leads to domestic violence. And, neither the people who wrote to me nor I are saying that there is a 1:1 relationship between teaching youngsters that killing other animals is okay and that youngsters who engage in these activities will then go on to engage in domestic violence. Dr. Frank Ascione, one of the world's leaders in studying "the link," also agrees, and notes how both animals and people will benefit from learning more about it (you can read more about Dr. Ascione and his numerous books and essays here). Nonetheless, there are compelling data showing that there is a strong association between animal and human abuse.

With what is known about the extent of domestic abuse in New Zealand (and elsewhere), it's extremely important to pay serious attention to how early training that encourages the killing of nonhuman animals might continue to be displayed when these or other youngsters become adults, and how killing other animals, sanctioned by educators and school systems, will play out and be transmitted to future generations who might adopt these perverse values.

While some people urge that the slaughter of these animals must be humane, and some claim that the killing sprees will be conducted with compassion for the animals, there is no way that all of the millions upon millions of animals will be killed with respect for whom they are, namely, sentient and feeling beings who care about what happens to them and to their family and friends. There also will be what some people call "collateral damage," which is inevitable because the methods used will harm and kill individuals of species who are not specifically targeted. The pain, suffering, and death of each and every individual matters to them, and it should matter to us (for more discussion of the importance of paying attention to individual animals, please also see "Animal Heartbreak: Each Individual's Feelings Matter to Them" and The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age).

Data from around the world supporting "the link" are of great concern to numerous people, as it should be. It is a relationship to which it is well worth paying close attention. By encouraging respect for other animals as early in life as possible, we might see a decline in the relationship between violence toward nonhumans and subsequent violence toward humans. Teaching the children wrong can have devastating consequences. Teaching them right could surely right many of the wrongs. An excellent book on this topic is A. G. Rud and Jim Garrison's Teaching with Reverence: Reviving an Ancient Virtue for Today's Schools.

If we do all we can to engender kindness and compassion for nonhuman animals beginning with youngsters, perhaps we we could put a crink in the link and hope that kindness and compassion will beget kindness and compassion. This surely would be a win-win for all, for both animals and people. This is a goal to which we should all subscribe, and it can all begin by focusing on youngsters and their relationships to other animals. Let's begin right now.

More information about possum hunting and killing

Compassion and respect, following Dr Jane Goodall’s lead

Letter to New Zealand's Minister of education

Petition to end possum killing (put forth by Lynley Tulloch, Starfish Sanctuary)

Facts about the use of 1080 poison from SAFE New Zealand


Ascione, F. R., Weber, C. V., & Wood, D. S. (1997). The abuse of animals and domestic violence: A national survey of shelters for women who are battered. Society & Animals, 5(3), 205-218.

Volant, A. M., Johnson, J. A., Gullone, E., & Coleman, G. J. (2008). The relationship between domestic violence and animal abuse: An Australian study. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 23, 1277-1295.

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do will be published in early 2018. Learn more at

More from Marc Bekoff Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today