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America’s Animal Abuse Problem

Cindy A. Adams, ASPCA

Concern for animal welfare must include concern for child welfare. An abused child will often lash out, and an animal is often the closest, most vulnerable target.

In the early morning of July 24th, 1992, while residents of a northern Bronx, NY, neighborhood slept, 10 animals, part of a summer day camp for children there, were hacked to death. The savage intruder, still unidentified, left bloody lamb, pig, goat and rabbit carcasses scattered about their pens. A 21-year-old donkey, Pasado, beloved mascot of Kelsey Creek Park in Bellevue, WA, was dragged from his barn, strung up on a hangman’s noose and brutally beaten to death last April. His killers were the 20-year-old son of a police major, a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old.

In October 1991, a 10-year-old boy in Raleigh, NC, put a pencil up an 8-week-old puppy’s rectum. The puppy died as a result,- the youth, identified by witnesses, was convicted in juvenile court and put into a year-long counseling program.

America’s Animal Abuse Problem


These animals were just a few recent victims of America’s violence problem. Others live in pain and fear, abused repeatedly over a period of years. No one knows how many animals are abused or neglected in America each year, but a 1982 study of 53 New Jersey families with a history of child abuse, child sexual abuse or neglect, who also lived with companion animals, may be telling. In 88 percent of the homes in which physical abuse against children took place, animal abuse also occurred.

To some people, animal abuse is a minor problem. To The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, its cessation is the guiding mission for which the organization was founded. ASPCA intervention is addressed through law enforcement, medicine, and, most importantly for the future, legislation and humane education. But we, and the scores of like animal welfare agencies across the country, need to do better, and to reach out further. And we all need to recognize the undeniable links between all types of violence and abuse.

The idea that animal abuse, or child abuse, or wife beating, or gay bashing, or environmental abuse or abuse to the elderly are issues unto themselves is no longer a viable stance. Violence is violence. It has gotten out of hand, it claims perpetrators and victims from every social and economic bracket, and unless we collectively address the issue head on, a new generation of productive, nurturing individuals will be lost.

Damaged Children

Human violence is as old as humankind, and philosophers, historians, healers and social scientists have always pondered its causes and effects. But only in the last few decades has the impact of cruel and abusive acts visited upon children, and cruel and abusive acts committed by children. become the subject of intensive scientific research.

Many researchers have paved the way since the 1960s for a growing body of data. For many years, a classic triad of enuresis (bedwetting), pyromania (fire setting) and animal abuse was cited as symptomatic of troubled children and adolescents. This seems to be giving way to a new classic, however: the triptych of child abuse, childhood animal abuse and later deviant behavior against humans, according to Dr. Randall Lockwood, a psychologist and Vice President of Field Services for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), based in Washington, DC. He says, “Not all abused individuals become abusers, but virtually all animal abusers were abused.” Lockwood points out that chronic or repetitive antisocial crimes like animal abuse and fire setting are crimes of power.

In 1985, Drs. Alan Felthous and Steven Kellert studied 152 men, 102 of them serving time in federal penitentiaries. Cruelty to animals during childhood occurred much more often among the aggressive criminals than among the non-aggressive criminals or non-criminals. Kellert and Felthous identified nine major motivations for childhood animal abuse:

to control the animal

to retaliate against the animal

to satisfy a prejudice against a specific species or breed

to express aggression through an animal

to enhance one’s own aggressiveness

to shock people for amusement

to retaliate against another person

displacement of hostility from a person to an animal

nonspecific sadism.

Histories of domestic violence, especially parental alcoholism and extreme paternal violence, were common among the aggressive group studied.


* From 1960 to 1980, the U.S. population increased by 26%, the homicide rate due to guns increased 160%, (“Journal of the American Medical Association,’ Vol. 267, No. 22, p.3075).

* There is an average of 1 forcible rape every 5 minutes in the U.S. Federal Bureau of investigation, “Crime in the United States,” 1991.

* A child who watches an average 2 to 4 hours of television daily will see 8,000 murders and 100,000 other acts of television violence by the time he or she leaves elementary school (American Psychological Association).

* 2.6million cases of child abuse and neglect were reported in 1991. (National committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse). There are currently no national figures on animals; in 1991, The ASPCA investigated 1,434 cases of animal abuse and neglect in New York State alone.

* Suicide is the third leading cause of death among children and adolescents in the U.S., a rate that has doubled in the last 30 years, the increase almost solely due to firearms. Journal of the American Medical Association Vol. 267, No. 22, p. 3075

In childhood, we all learn how to “be.” Children learn their social context from their parents or guardians and they also learn how to parent. Many of today’s psychosocial practitioners draw on an amalgam of the formerly disparate sides of the “nature vs. nurture” debate: if humans are born with a biologic makeup that contributes to personality, that personality is also influenced by environmental (domestic) factors, from birth onward. Feelings of security, or conversely insecurity, develop from a newborn’s access to nurturing caretakers, or conversely, neglectful or abusive ones.

It is of critical importance in studying abused youngsters to recognize that they are denied normal moral development – self esteem, self-control and the ability to reason out problems. A child whose constant stimulus is the fear of physical or emotional abuse (aversive control) is unable to express him/herself well or become involved with the well-being of others, animal or human. Conversely, a normally developing, emotionally healthy child receives concern and consistent, nonphysically threatening discipline.

Animal abuse can be learned by children via a number of means. In many cases of incest or child sexual abuse, the offender uses the actual or threatened torture or death of an animal as powerful coercion (through fear) to keep a child quiet about the sexual abuse. The most obvious learning mechanism is an abuser who acts as a direct role model for a child. Whether a child sees spouse-beating, animal abuse or is abused himself, he may very well view a household pet, stray or wild animal as simply the next most vulnerable and accessible target on which to act out.

Children’s and adolescents’ cruelty to animals was added to the list of diagnostic criteria for conduct disorder by The American Psychiatric Association in 1987. According to Dr. Frank Ascione, Associate Professor of Psychology at Utah State University and a key researcher into childhood animal abuse, conduct disorder is exhibited by 2 percent to 6 percent of U.S. children today. Ascione cites the need for research into: the age of onset of cruelty to animals, behavior by gender, patterns of child and family interaction, passage of the behavior into adolescence and then adulthood, and, of course, prevention and intervention.

America’s Media Problem

It is doubtful that any factor is as harmful as actually living with abuse, but other influences also fuel the continuum of violence. For example, the epidemic of guns, war, rape and pillage that is America’s violence problem is brought to you in living color daily, on television and movie screens, in music videos and print vehicles. Some of these media also have tried to grapple with the violence problem in an educational, documentary format, yet such efforts are a mere blip on the tube. According to the The American Psychological Association, a child who watches an average of two to four hours of television daily will have seen 8,000 murders and I 00,000 other acts of violence by the time he or she leaves elementary school. There are 26.4 violent acts per hour on children’s programming, including cartoons. Children with lax to nonexistent supervision or no positive role models have virtually unlimited access to such images, and learn to solve their problems in disturbing, unrealistic ways.

Diana Zuckerman, a Washington, DC, psychologist and member of the APA’s Task Force on Television and Society, says, “No one knows exactly what the most vulnerable years are; younger (3- to 5-year-old) children don’t always understand what they’re watching, and tend to watch more cartoons, which are not as much of a problem as realistic depictions. There are certain years (primarily ages 8 to IO) during which they watch a lot, and they watch what they want; it’s not as controlled.”

The 1990 Children’s Television Act was an attempt to offer children more educational options; the Act asks broadcasters to “serve the educational and informational needs of children,” and document these efforts as they renew their licenses. However, according to a recent study conducted by the Takoma Park, MD, Center for Media Education, based on FCC filings from 58 television stations, broadcasters are simply redefining hundreds of existing shows as educational to meet requirements, and getting away with it.

America’s Inner City Problem

A child overexposed to images of violence is at risk. Add to the equation an abusive parent or guardian, and chances for recovery become even slimmer. Beset by still another aspect of America’s violence problem – America’s devastated inner cities – with no one to intercede and offer solace for the inner city blues, this child may never be able to overcome the odds and grow up healthy.

Whole communities and the infrastructure of support they once held – in schools, extended families and neighbors are disintegrating. While debate and anger rages about who’s to blame – many still do not recognize America’s collective culpability in its long history of racism against, for example, Native Americans and African Americans – the cost to the innocent child victim is clear: poor schools, poor nutrition and health care, poor housing, and on and on. Coupled with prevalent alcohol and drug abuse, a new generation of disempathetic children are being created who focus only on the immediate gratification of physical needs, at any cost. Children who daily witness and dodge flying bullets in drive-by shootings and in the halls of their schools are hard pressed to team empathy and altruism, unless aided by strong, warm, concerned adults. How can we hope to teach humane education when survival takes up all our youths’ energy?

Dr. James Garbarino, President of Chicago’s Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development, is among a growing number of experts studying Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in children growing up amid extreme inner city violence. Identified with major changes in personality, beliefs and behavior, the PTSD suffered by victims of America’s inner cities has the same characteristics as that widely identified with returning Vietnam War veterans and now seen in Northern Ireland and Beirut. Disassociative personalities, amnesia, nightmares and flashbacks are some of the common aspects of the disorder.

Long-term solutions to the problems and despair ravaging the inner city must begin with helping residents there establish an economic and political power base in America. Immediate and individualized help, though, must come in the form of swift and effective intervention.

Breaking the Cycle

Violence is everywhere in the public eye, yet most child and/or animal abuse occurs behind closed doors. Underlying this pattern are beliefs in familial privacy (the state has no right to interfere) and “ownership” of children and animals (how I treat MY kids or pets is MY business.) Patricia Schene, Ph.D., Director of the Children’s Division of the American Humane Association (AHA), said at the Association’s recent conference on violence (see sidebar below), “We have a national predilection for avoiding social change. We seem more willing to follow our moral obligation to help individuals than to follow institutional changes that are needed.”

More than 2.6 million children were reported for abuse and neglect in the United States in 1991, according to the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse. Obviously, institutional intervention is crucial in stopping the continuum of violence.

According to Phil Arkow, Education and Publicity Director of the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region, every state now requires professionals, including health care providers, educators and law enforcement officials to report suspected child abuse or neglect. In 1988, Colorado added veterinarians to the list, and also now requires film developers to report cases they uncover. Arkow notes that civil and criminal liability protections are in place in almost every state to protect reporters. Physicians, mental health professionals and veterinarians in particular increasingly are grappling with the idea that an individual’s immediate danger outweighs confidentiality. Child welfare advocates in many states also seek to expand the list of mandatory reporters to include day care workers and animal care and control personnel, among others.

Perhaps surprisingly, relatively little animal abuse, especially chronic abuse, is seen at The ASPCA’s Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital. Dr. Gordon Robinson, ASPCA Vice President and Director of Bergh Memorial, explains that given the Society’s law enforcement powers, abusers are reluctant to bring an animal here. He adds, “In cases that are brought here, prosecution is unlikely. Sometimes a person will give some details of the abuse so that treatment can be effective, but if we press, we tend to put on the spot the one person in the whole scenario who is trying to help the animal. Just as with child abuse, it’s hard to get a wife to testify against a husband; and in the case of a neighbor, the fear of retribution is a deterrent.”

According to Patricia Toth, Director of the Washington, DC-based National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse, a critical, and as yet limited, aspect of the abuse problem is multidisciplinary cross-training. Because children and animals are often abused in the same home, police officers, animal control officers and social service workers all need to learn what to look for and how to deal with problems when they find them. Juvenile and family court judges, especially, must be trained to see the continuum for the vicious, escalating monster that it is, and to care. Many cities harbor family court judges who are notorious for returning mistreated children to their abusers; and, in fact, “the system” continues to favor reuniting the family, too often before therapeutic change has occurred.

Model cross-training programs have been established in a few parts of the country. In the San Francisco area in 1990, The Humane Coalition Against Violence (HCAV) was created jointly by Lynn Loar, Educational Coordinator of the San Francisco Child Abuse Council, and Kenneth White, Deputy Director of the San Francisco Department of Animal Care and Control. Through workshops, training courses and published work, HCAV has guided numerous animal welfare and child welfare workers on how to assess and report abuse and neglect when they come across it.

Animal Advocates For Children is a similar program created by Mary Pat Boatfield, Executive Director of the Toledo Humane Society. It presents thorough guidelines for cross-recognition and reporting of child and animal abuse and neglect. Toledo Humane offers information on intervention programs to court judges when animal abuse is prosecuted, and keeps careful records of perpetrator profiles in order to add to the currently limited body of data on offenders.


For current victims of child or animal abuse, intervention offers hope of recovery. However, for millions of potential future victims, effective, long-term prevention must come in the fonti of legislative change. Improvements are needed not only in the area of mandatory reporting, but in the classification of and sentencing for animal abuse.

In most states, cruelty to animals is still classified as a misdemeanor, despite repeated attempts by animal welfare advocates to press for stricter sentencing. Says Herman Cohen, ASPCA Senior Vice President of Humane Law Enforcement, “Courts treat misdemeanors like overblown traffic tickets. Occasionally, when the offense is obviously depraved, jail time will be handed out.”

According to the HSUS’s Lockwood, more and more states are felonizing animal abuse, usually after a particularly gruesome, publicized case. “The issue is of growing concern,” he says. “Obviously, (abuse to animals) won’t end by just locking up offenders, but it sends the message that this is something society should not condone.

A bill designed to upgrade animal abuse from a misdemeanor (punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and/or imprisonment of up to one year) to a felony (punishable by imprisonment for a minimum of one year but not more than four years and/or a $5,000 fine) has passed the New York State Senate for several years, but, a similar bill has failed repeatedly in the Assembly. Current efforts revolve around making at least intentional cruelty to animals a felony. (Animal fighting, but not spectatorship, is already felonized in New York State.) In 1992, legislation (A.4165) also was introduced in New York State to prevent animals being returned to their owners in cruelty cases; instead, it would be mandated that the animal be brought to a duly incorporated SPCA for adoption. This law would also allow a judge to prohibit a violator from gaining custody and control of another animal for a period of time he or she deems suitable.

AHA on Abuse

Leading the charge against America’s epidemic of violence today is the Denver, CO-based American Humane Association (AHA). Founded in 1877, the AHA is the only national organization dedicated to protecting both children and animals from cruelty, neglect, abuse and exploitation.

On September 14 and 15, 1992, the air around Herndon, VA, was charged with positive energy when the AHA held its second annual conference on animal and child abuse prevention, “Protecting Children and Animals: Agenda for a Non-Violent Future.”

Scott McVay, Executive Director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, set the tone in his opening keynote address: “Violence to the vulnerable is one of a half dozen issues that will determine the length of our stay here on the planet.”

AHA Executive Director Larry Brown ventured that those concerned with this problem may very well do better working together. “(We must) challenge the course of society’s unfolding reality of violence,” he urged in his welcoming address.

Child and animal welfare experts offered explicit testimony to the growing numbers of our young and our animal charges being cruelly wasted. The diversity of background, opinion and expertise of speakers at the conference provided a rich lode of inspiration for attendees, who came away with a new dedication to breaking the continuum of violence.

Starting over

In the face of America’s epidemic of violence and abuse, we can begin to draw encouragement and strength from the fact that it is being named and confronted. Innovative intervention and prevention programs around the country, too, offer optimism. The cycle of abuse can be broken. There are dedicated individuals around the country who care deeply about embracing abused children in their protection and replacing the continuum of violence with one of hope and power. Teachers, in particular, can be one of the most effective channels through which successful intervention R can take place and a nurturing philosophy instilled.

And too, therapeutic programs like Green Chimneys in Brewster, NY, are breaking the continuum of violence. Dr Samuel Ross, Executive Director of 45-year-old Green Chimneys, and his staff run a residential community – with farm animals, riding horses and household companion animals for troubled children, many of whom are at the end of the adoption/foster care continuum. Plants and animals are present in every living unit; supervision and guidance are gentle and nurturing. “The care of plants and animals is neutral,” says Ross. “It can bring people together.” Ross notes that children spend more time on tasks when an animal is in the room, and are quieter and more well behaved because they understand an animal will get excited with too much noise.

Project Choice in Pierce County, WA, helps sexually abused and chronic run away girls aged 11 to 17. In addition to building self-esteem, a work ethic and sense of sharing, Project Choice tries to restore childhood to these adolescents. “We believe that all of us need to allow the ‘child within’ the freedom to be expressed,” says Barbara Downing, Program Director. “The farm is a place where these youth-at-risk can find that part of themselves which was lost or never developed as a result of their abuse.”

Building a sense of community and instilling a sense of self worth in troubled children are not easy tasks given our collective tendency toward violence and neglect. They are possible, however, and offer hope of also building our nation’s humanity.

The Legacy of Mary Ellen

by Stephen Zawistowski, Ph.D., ASPCA Senior Vice President, Operations/Science Advisor

“I have now the black and blue marks on my head which were made by Mamma, and also a cut on the left side of my forehead which was made by a pair of scissors.” Bruised and beaten, clad in the only ragged garment she was allowed to wear, 10-year-old Mary Ellen’s tiny voice stunned the courtroom and, in the words of Jacob Riis, “…roused the conscience of a world.”

In the spring of 1874, just eight years after founding The ASPCA, Henry Bergh was approached by Etta Angell Wheeler with an urgent and unusual request. Wheeler, a social worker in the tenements of New York City, had been stymied in every effort to assist a young girl beaten and sorely abused by her foster parents. Finally, Wheeler’s niece suggested meeting with Bergh, well known for intervening on behalf of abused animals. When Wheeler presented the evidence to him, Bergh responded by contacting his attorney, Elbridge Gerry, with the admonition, “No time is to be lost.” Gerry’s ingenious use of habeas corpus resulted in a warrant which Bergh used to remove the child from the home and bring the case before the court. Bergh himself testified at the trial. Despite his own disclaimer during testimony, a myth arose that Bergh and The ASPCA had interceded on behalf of Mary Ellen because, if nothing else, she deserved the same protection as an animal. Bergh had in fact acted as a humane citizen in this case and not in his official capacity as President of The ASPCA. Regardless, his notoriety for advancing causes of a humane nature attracted substantial public attention to the case.

Mary Ellen was removed from her pitiful condition and eventually came to live with Etta Wheeler’s sister in upstate New York. Gerry and Bergh would establish the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1874.

Most happy of all, Mary Ellen, now in a warm, loving home, blossomed as a child and lived a long, fruitful life. She died in 1956 at the age of 92. She was survived by children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. The later success and happiness of her life is testimony that even those children receiving the most abusive treatment will respond to kindness. The cycle of abuse can indeed be broken if caring and concerned people have the courage and intelligence to act.

For more information about abuse, you can contact: The National Resource Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, 1-800-227-5242; The American Humane Association, 63 Inverness Drive East, Englewood, CO 80112-5117, or local agencies in your area.

Cindy A. Adams is the former editor of Animal Watch Magazine.

©1992 ASPCA

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