Pets to People: Violence Unleashed
Serial killers constitute the most violent of criminals in society. Fortunately, they constitute a small proportion of violent offenders. Although some people may argue that serial killers are qualitatively separate from the typical violent offender, violence is violence regardless of its form. Perhaps there is a continuum of violence that begins with childhood animal abuse and progresses to serial killing in extreme cases. If so, society can intervene at the animal abuse stage by instituting counseling in order to curtail later violent expressions and by enacting more severe penalties for such abuse.
According to much serial killer research, as youngsters they enjoyed torturing animals and grew up in violent homes. Many serial killers lived with abusive alcoholic fathers who physically abused them as children. Later, such children often developed alcohol or drug-related addictions which is often used as an excuse for their violent behavior. For example, Luis Alfredo Gavarito who murdered over 140 children in Columbia said, "[I] committed most of the murders after heavy drinking."
Most abusive people grew up in similarly described dysfunctional homes and have histories of harming animals. According to the Washington Humane Society, "animal abuse and child abuse often go hand in hand." Further, George Schiavone said, "children who learn aggression towards animals and view them as worthless also tend to have the same feelings toward people as adults."
While counseling, often heard are men charged with assault blaming the victim, the police, their abusive upbringing, or drugs and alcohol. They rarely take responsibility for their actions. Random outbursts of aggression sometimes occurred during our sessions. Many of the men grew up in dysfunctional homes where they witnessed and/or were victims of physical abuse, oftentimes by their fathers.
Although the men did not define it as such, many of them excessively "disciplined" their pets and described a strong desire to be in control. Johnston (1993) found that, "88% of pets living in households with domestic abuse are either abused or killed." Domestic violence as well as serial and mass criminal violence often involves animals. Most had a history of being physically violent towards others, usually their partners. In most instances, offenders started abusing animals and later those close to them (Rausch, 1997). Hogarth was the first to find such an association in 1751. Their violent behavior seemed to escalate over time in terms of going from animals to humans and in terms of the severity of abuse given. For example, all of the school killers from Arkansas, Oregon, and Colorado had a history of torturing and killing animals before turning their guns on their classmates.
Resler (1998), an FBI criminal profiler, found that people who commit acts of cruelty against animals don't stop there; many of them move on to their fellow humans. Resler (1998) states that, "murderers...very often start out by killing and torturing animals as kids...[this] can be the first sign of a violent pathology that includes humans." The FBI has found a history of cruelty to animals a trait in the records of serial rapists and murderers (Goleman, 1991).
Abusive people use violence as a means of gaining or maintaining control of a situation. Lacking the knowledge of how to appropriately express their feelings (especially anger) or how to communicate effectively results in violent behavior as their sole outlet. Serial killers have an "obsessive need for control" and the violence used in order to get control escalates over time and becomes more frequent. Those who commit serial or mass criminal violence often used animals as "rehersal" tools in their adolescence and worked their way up to eventual abuse or killing of people (AAHA, 1997). This link was first established 250 years ago and doesn't seem to be changing (AAHA, 1997)
With this is mind, rehabilitation programs can be geared to teach such offenders more effective and appropriate communication skills and methods of managing their feelings. Many violent people have a long history of being physically abusive and have often served jail time. If such rehabilitation programs were put in place, perhaps the violence and incarceration frequency would be limited to a one time event.
My suggestion is to focus more on prevention rather than waiting for innocent people (and animals) to get hurt, and in many cases, killed (Rausch, 1997). One way may be to earmark animal abuse as a precursor to human abuse and intervene in this earlier stage of abuse with counseling or some other form of remediation. The APA manual, which is used by psychologists and psychiatrists to reference an individual's disorder, lists cruelty to animals as a diagnostic criterion for conduct disorders. Resler (1998) further cites animal abuse as a symptom of a deep disturbance and Hoffman (1998) recognizes violent acts toward animals as indicators of a violent psychopatholody that does not confine itself to animals.
Enacting more severe penalties for animal abuse is another idea. Currently, those who harm animals receive nothing more than a slap on the wrist and a verbal reprimand. Occasionally, they receive a small monetary fine. This kind of repercussion teaches the offender little, if anything, and minimizes the impact of violence. Schools, parents, communities, and courts who shrug off animal abuse as a "minor" crime are ignoring a time bomb. Everyone has a basic need to feel safe and perhaps early detection, increased severity of punishment for offenders, and early rehabilitation and skill development may be three ways to increase the safety of our society and to demonstrate that any kind of violence will not be tolerated.