Telling An Old, Old Story: Animal Cruelty and Human Violence

The New York Times recently reported, sounding somewhat aghast, that there is a connection between animal cruelty and human violence (content warning, the article has graphic descriptions of animal cruelty). The article covers some of the recent shifts in how animal cruelty cases are approached; instead of being viewed as isolated incidences of people doing horrible things, they are recognised for what they are, which is part of a much larger pattern.

There is a very strong link between animal abuse and human cruelty. So strong, in fact, that numerous animal welfare organisations as well as law enforcement have programs in place to monitor, track, and address animal cruelty, like First Strike at the Humane Society of the United States. People who provide services to victims of domestic violence are already well aware that there’s a link and that in domestic violence situations, the pets are often the first to suffer. Organisations like Ahimsa House specifically provide sheltering services for pets caught in cycles of domestic violence.

Animal cruelty is something that makes me incendiarily angry, and it always has. Long before I was active in social justice spaces, I was advocating for animal welfare, and even as a very young child I was very much unafraid when it came to going against people in authority, people bigger than me, and people older than me if I witnessed animal abuse. I have ended friendships not just over animal abuse, but over tolerance of same. It is something that I take extremely seriously and when I was training to become a crisis counselor, I was very pleased to see that one of the topics we covered was the connection between animal abuse and domestic violence, and securing safety for pets as well as people in domestic violence situations.

Which is why I am glad to see the Times covering this, even if it is a little late on the bandwagon. First Strike, after all, was founded in 1997 and it is not the first program of its kind. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been maintaining statistics and tracking animal abuse for decades, as have many other law enforcement agencies. Put bluntly, while not all people who abuse animals as children and young adults turn to human violence, many people who engage in serial killing, serial rape, domestic violence, and other violent crimes have a history of abusing animals. And not just abusing. Torturing. Doing things so despicable that just thinking, even very vaguely, about them makes me want to sink into a pit of despair.

Violence to animals makes me so sad, and so angry, that I have a really hard time reading stories about it. It unsettles me for the rest of the day. I have been struggling with this post for a month in no small part because I can’t even finish reading the Times article, because it is so upsetting for me. You can call me a softie if you want, but reading descriptions of animal torture makes me feel physically sick, in the same way that reading about acts of extreme violence committed against humans makes me deeply unhappy.

Animal rights isn’t a topic I see covered in a lot of the social justice spaces I engage with right now. It’s not a topic I cover very often myself, honestly. But the clear connection between violence to humans and violence to animals, and the tendency to lump certain groups of humans (children, people with disabilities) in with animals, speaks to a need to talk about animal rights and animal welfare. Not just to stress that humans should not be talked about like animals, but to talk about the way that we talk about animals, and the way that the treatment of animals translates into the treatment of humans because of persistent social attitudes about certain classes of people.

When I see a person who participates in or tolerates animal abuse, I don’t just see a vile person. I see someone who may well abuse me or someone else. I see a person who carefully picks prey deemed helpless and disposable, who derives pleasure from torment. I see someone who poses a risk to human beings who are perceived as helpless by society because of the way that we frame conversations about them. Someone who does unspeakable things to animals also has the capacity to do unspeakable things to people with disabilities, to children, to women, to people of colour, because there’s a very good chance that this person has internalised the ‘these groups are like animals, and animals are objects to be used and abused at will’ attitude.

People who feel neutral about animals and animal rights should be pretty angry about animal abuse because of the embedded implications, since we live in a society where the tendency to compare people and animals is disturbingly common. While many people rightly speak out against comparisons of groups of people to animals, it’s mainly framed as ‘non-human animals aren’t animals, it’s degrading to suggest that they are.’ They don’t go a step further, to talk about the other implication of this common social attitude: that because animals are viewed as disposable objects instead of living organisms, they are viewed as fair targets for abuse and neglect, and this same framing is effortlessly transferred to human beings when people believe that human beings are equivalent to animals.

There’s a link between animal abuse and human cruelty for a reason: Both animals and certain groups of people are objectified and framed in very specific ways that reflect in our social attitudes. This framing leads to abuse and tolerance of same. We need to deconstruct the framing that positions animals and particular classes of people as objects for abuse and that includes talking about the roots of that framing and the insidious ways it manifests.

I would really like to find a way to both decouple animals and certain classes of people and to address cruelty to both humans and animals, because while people and animals are not linked (except in an evolutionary sense), violence to nonhuman animals and human beings most definitely is correlated.