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Understanding Serial Animal Abusers

Does a kid who hurts animals grow up to be an adult who kills humans? used with permission
Source: used with permission

As I write this post, police in Croydon, a suburb of south London, are frantically looking for a serial cat killer who has tortured and murdered up to 50 cats in the past two years.  Not only are the owners having to deal with the loss of their beloved pets, the killer(s) likes to leave the dismembered animal on the doorsteps for the owners to find. Apparently, anticipating, or observing, the owner's grief is part of the thrill.  

In March, a Delhi security camera, caught a serial dog killer luring three puppies with food and then stabbing them to death.  Reportedly, at least a dozen dogs had vanished in this same Indian neighborhood over the past two weeks.

Lest you are thinking, "not here in the good ole U.S.A.," think again.  News stories are full of animal cruelty tales.  Here's just one example; on October 8, 2015, 24 year old Robert Farmer was arrested in San Jose, California on suspicion of animal cruelty after he was found sleeping in his car with a dead cat, a pair of gloves covered in fur, and a bloody knife.  According to acquaintances who knew him in high school, he had told at least two students that he had killed a cat when he was younger.  He had recently hurt a friend's cat after it irritated him because, in his words, "it was spoiled."

Who Would Hurt a Helpless Animal?

The answer depends on how we define "hurt" and what kind of animal we're talking about.  Across 13 studies, 27% was the average number of survey respondents in the general (non-prison) population who admitted to at least one incidence of deliberate cruelty to an animal.  However, when the cruelty was narrowed to physical violence targeted at either a cat or a dog, the percentage dropped to about 2 percent.  

Clearly, then, most "normal" adults did not often or intentionally hurt animals at any point during their elementary or teen years (in a previous post, we've looked at how children under six tend to view animals and how their natural curiosity can lead to bumps and bruises for their pets).  It has been long thought that cruelty to animals is one of the earliest and most serious symptoms of conduct disorder, a childhood malady that is often a precursor to psychopathy.  And, in fact, there is clear evidence that violent adults are more likely to have a history of animal abuse.  

Unfortunately, this data is often treated as evidence that there is a "bad seed" out there who needs to be caught - and punished - before he graduates to humans.  And while it is possible that there's a fledgling psychopath out there running amok, the truth is often more complicated.  Most children who abuse animals do not graduate to humans and, in fact, a single episode of animal cruelty is not predictive of future violence at all.  Older children and teens who abuse animals do so for a variety of reasons, each of which needs to be understood and addressed so that violence does not continue to be a way to get one's needs met.   

For example, children who abuse animals were also likely to have been mistreated themselves.  Given the strong correlation between animal abuse and interpersonal violence, it is possible that the young abuser has been a victim of - or witness to - domestic violence, physical abuse, or animal cruelty perpetrated by an adult.  Children who witness animal abuse are greater risk of becoming abusers themselves. Evaluating and treating these problems, in conjunction with a very specific intervention targeting the animal cruelty behavior, is likely to be much more effective than punishment alone.  

 The Bottom Line 

Yes, animal cruelty in a child 6 or older should be viewed as a red flag and, no, it should never be dismissed as "just a phase."  Yes, parents would be wise to take such a child for a psychological evaluation, where a professional can assess important factors such as the prevalence and severity of the animal abuse, the motives behind it, the purpose it serves, and how to stop it.  

But it does not mean that this child is destined to become a serial killer or, for that matter, a violent adult.  Not every serial killer starts with animals and not every animal abuser is the next Ted Bundy.  The "red flag" of childhood/teen animal cruelty may signal many things - a budding psychopath, a child abuse victim, or a witness to domestic violence or adult animal cruelty.  Whatever the reason, though, this child is learning to use violence to get certain needs met and needs help.  The longer it goes on, the harder it will be to stop.