Violence Against Human and Nonhuman Animals:
Understanding and Evaluating the Link

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Violence Against Human and Nonhuman Animals:
Understanding and Evaluating the Link

[Ed. Note: The discussion about and evidence for a link between violence to human animals and other-than-human animals has grown tremendously in the past two decades. The philosophical and theoretical arguments have grown stronger, and police, prosecutors and judges are now understanding this link and acting on it...sentences for animal abuse continue to get stronger and longer. For more, please also read Growing Pains and the Link, The Link: New Mexico Recognizes Connection Between Domestic Violence and Animal Abuse.]

By Carol Glaser, Humane Research Council
June 2011

The debate between causation and correlation regarding the links between violence toward human and nonhuman animals is what Flynn labels “The progression thesis” (causal) and “generalized deviance” (correlation)....He concludes that past research provides evidence for both perspectives: “Animal abuse can be a risk factor, a marker, and sometimes a precursor of other forms of violence, and vice versa.”

The connections between human and animal violence are of great interest to animal advocates. If an empirical link can be made, then animal advocates will have greater leverage arguing for prosecution and harsher punishment for animal abuse. Additionally, advocates can use evidence of such links to encourage governments to establish protocols to check on animal welfare in households with domestic violence. Although research in the field is limited, a recent article by Clifton P. Flynn, published last month in the journal Crime, Law, and Social Change, provides the most comprehensive review of this literature to date.

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Flynn highlights and summarizes studies that investigate links between companion animal abuse and domestic abuse, bullying and animal abuse, exposure to animal abuse and juvenile delinquency, and criminality and injuring animals in childhood. In a previous post, I discussed some studies that indicated a link between animal abuse and human violence. Although most researchers find this link, Flynn explains that it is poorly understood and there is no clear answer as to whether it is a merely a correlation or a causal relationship.

The debate between causation and correlation regarding the links between violence toward human and nonhuman animals is what Flynn labels “The progression thesis” (causal) and “generalized deviance” (correlation). In other words, the debate is whether individuals “escalate” from hurting nonhuman animals to hurting human animals or if individuals who hurt humans and animals are generally deviant and hurt both as a means of abuse, but not in an escalatory manner. He concludes that past research provides evidence for both perspectives: “Animal abuse can be a risk factor, a marker, and sometimes a precursor of other forms of violence, and vice versa” (pg. 461).

Flynn argues that to truly understand the link between abusing animals and harming people, research needs to address a number of issues and improve in a number of ways. First, the relationship between the forms of abuse must be narrowed in scope. For example, Flynn suggests examining whether acts of violence are recurrent and factoring in the nature of the animal abuse. Further, the way the topic is framed and measured is important. Animal abuse is defined from the perspective of dominant culture, so the effects of socially accepted or institutionalized forms of animal abuse (e.g. hunting, factory farming) are not included and the animal abuse itself is not deemed important beyond its predictive value for human abuse.

In Support of Critical Animal Studies

This is where the field of Human-Animal Studies and Critical Animal studies are of paramount importance to bring more light to the connections between human violence and violence toward other animals.* Within critical animal studies, a small but growing field of academia, the perspective of the nonhuman animal is valid and important. In regard to issues of violence against nonhuman and human animals, scholars in these fields are needed if the conversation is to shift from animal abuse mattering in and of itself, versus only in the context of human violence.

For example, Flynn discusses one argument within the field of criminology regarding how to handle children who abuse animals. Some argue that childhood abuse toward other animals, because it may be an indicator of the potential for human abuse later in life, should elicit punishment and lead to authorities labeling these individuals as potential risks and closely tracking them. Others argue that, since not all children who harm animals go on to harm people, they should not be singled out, because labeling them as delinquents could stigmatize them, thereby pushing them into a life of deviance.

However, from a critical animals studies perspective this debate is ridiculous. These arguments presume that hurting nonhuman animals is not “as bad” as hurting human animals; the behavior matters mostly because it may be a predictor for human violence. Among human-animal scholars concerned with how to handle children abusing animals, the discussion is more likely to be why the animal abuse starts in the first place and what is the proper treatment to prevent these children from hurting anyone in the future, human and nonhuman.

A critical animal studies perspective also allows for a new perspective on what questions might be asked and how studies are designed and variables are measured. From a dominant ideology, the definition of animal abuse is very different than it is from the perspective of animal advocates. This means that many connections between animal abuse and human violence are missed, as the most prevalent forms of animals abuse are often not included in the variables measured.

As Flynn discusses: “To date, (human-animal violence) link research has focused almost exclusively on illegal animal abuse committed by individuals or small groups. Yet why should attempts to discover connections between animal abuse and human violence be limited only to violence against animals that has been classified as illegal or socially acceptable?” This means that effects of acceptable violence against nonhuman animals—hunting, slaughtering, fur wearing—become necessary points of inquiry.

Unfortunately, little research has examined these issues, but in my next post I will highlight and summarize a few studies that examine the connections between violence behaviors toward both human and nonhuman animals from a critical animal studies perspective.

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*Animals and Society Institute (ASI) and the Institute for Critical Animal Studies (ICAS) are academic organizations that support human animal studies and critical animal studies, respectively. Each publishes a journal, maintains a list serve for academics and researchers, and hosts conferences to forward these fields of inquiry.