Growing Pains and the Link

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Growing Pains and the Link

[Ed. Note: Please read more about the link between animal and human abuse: The Link: New Mexico Recognizes Connection Between Domestic Violence and Animal Abuse. There are several organizations working on this issue. We invite you to search online to find these groups and read their articles and support their work.]

By Phil Arkow on Animals and Society Institute (ASI)
April 2011

It's hard for me to imagine that it's been a quarter-century since several of us humane leaders had epiphany moments that rejuvenated the age-old interest in the connections between animal abuse and human violence. For me, my moment came while I was the humane educator at the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region in Colorado Springs. I had brought a local veterinarian to an in-service training for teachers and asked him if he, with his knowledge of trauma and pathology, was a mandated reporter of suspected child abuse as were all the teachers in the room.

He paused a moment and acknowledged that he was. (As it turned out, at the time Colorado was the only state where vets were mandated reporters: the issue had never been raised in 49 states.) I then asked him whether he was required to report suspected animal cruelty to the Humane Society. Without any hesitation he responded, "No, why would I ever want to do that? I might lose a client." My silent response was: "What's wrong with this picture?"

Fast-forward 25 years and there is now a burgeoning movement in what we call "The Link" – the intersections between animal abuse and other forms of family and community violence. We've launched a new organization, the National Link Coalition, seen over 500 books and articles published, hosted conferences and training tracks, and have a speakers' bureau of experts conducting training around the world. Link coalitions are emerging in communities across the U.S. and there's growing foreign interest in the U.K., Spain, The Netherlands, Canada, The Bahamas, Ireland, South Africa, Japan, Italy, Australia, and New Zealand.

As Link awareness has grown it has, like all movements, spun off into unpredictable niches. Where we once considered The Link solely in terms of the impact on children who harm animals or witness acts of animal cruelty, we soon came to see an equally significant issue in the way animals are harmed and threatened in acts of domestic violence relationships. The idea that animal abuse might be linked to elder abuse wasn't on our original radar screens. Neither were such innovations as AniCare and AniCare Child psychological interventions for offenders, legislation to let judges include pets in protection-from-abuse orders, recognition of veterinary forensics as a specialty, and the proliferation of therapeutic interventions using the healing powers of animals with juvenile offenders and youth who are at risk of becoming violent.

As with any new movement, growth and the passage of time have brought forth a second generation of participants with new perspectives and specializations. These necessarily include a few skeptics who raise questions that seem uncomfortable at first, but that serve to remind us all to not take our assumptions for granted but rather to continue testing, refining and redefining the axioms underlying the work. We went through a similar cycle with what was then called pet therapy when a few researchers asked, "But is it therapy?" which caused us to re-think our original premises and create new definitions of animal-assisted therapy, activities and interventions.

Although the links between animal abuse and interpersonal violence are well established by cultural tradition, anecdotal experience, and a growing base of empirical research, The Link is not without its critics. The systematic, scientific study of humans' abuse of animals is a fairly recent phenomenon and has only very recently been informed by the discipline of forensic evidence and academic inquiry.

Peterson and Farrington (2007), among others, have noted that although studies suggest that children who are cruel to animals or who witness animal violence disproportionately tend to be violent to people later in life and that animal abuse tends to co-occur with some frequency in other cases of family violence, much of the research underpinning these findings has been based on small, unrepresentative samples with poor or no control groups. Ascione & Shapiro (2009) have observed that the graduation hypothesis – that animal abuse is a precursor to human abuse – has not been substantiated in the Link literature and that apparently robust findings of co-occurrence of multiple forms of violence frequently fail to document whether the animal abuse preceded, was contemporaneous with, or followed the interpersonal violence.

Dadds, Whiting & Hawes (2006) noted that reports of childhood cruelty to animals are compromised by variations between self-reports and reports from parents who may not be fully aware of their children's actions. Widom (1989) noted that although the idea that violence begets violence makes intuitive sense and is firmly established in the minds of professionals and the general public alike, much of the research in this area is flawed due to questionably accurate information emanating from weak sampling techniques and the retrospective nature of the reporting, which is subject to potential recall errors, biases and efforts to achieve social desirability.

Herzog (2010) noted that he, as well as many personal acquaintances who do not have criminal records, admit to having abusing animals when they were children, and that the anecdotal evidence linking serial killers and school shooters with animal abuse is tenuous. Although there is some evidence of a relationship between childhood animal abuse and adult violence, there is a risk of overstating this linkage. "The awkward fact is that most wanton animal cruelty is not perpetrated by inherently bad kids but by normal children who will eventually grow up to be good citizens," Herzog wrote. He encouraged the field to not ignore animal abuse, but rather to treat it as a serious problem in its own right.

Perhaps the most vocal skeptics have been Piper & Myers (2006), who questioned linking different forms of violence in a mechanistic and predictive way and suggested replacing a language of rhetoric with a language of reason. They argued that evidence for the underlying assumptions of The Link is neither clear-cut, consistent nor predictable, and that closed thinking about the causalities of violence tends to offer simple remedies to what are in fact complex situations. They encouraged caution and development of a more analytic and less sensational understanding of animal cruelty which, they admitted, is a largely invisible form of violence.

This skepticism was echoed in a later paper by Patterson-Kane and Piper (2009) who argued that while the co-occurrence of abuse types in at-risk households should not be minimized, the popular and professional acceptance of The Link is challenged by a limited pool of empirical data, flawed causal explanations, and an overemphasis on the danger that animal abusers pose to humans. Such an emphasis, they argued, may create a "moral panic" and ironically fail to focus attention on the most common types of animal abuse and the most effective strategies for reducing its occurrence.

After a quarter-century, it seems as if the field risks going through the same "growing pains" that have marked other movements, such as animal-assisted interventions, pitting curmudgeonly academicians seeking incontrovertible data against overly enthusiastic practitioners seeking practical implementations.

Perhaps the most objective assessment of The Link at this stage of its evolution has come out of the UK, where the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (2010) prepared a briefing for MPs. The briefing concluded that there is evidence of an association between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence, however animal cruelty alone is unlikely to be highly predictive as a marker for violence towards people. Nevertheless, agencies that work with animals and families are starting to work together and cross-report cases despite concerns that in some instances this cross-reporting may be inappropriate.

In summary, though much of the research and programming involving The Link are compelling and make intuitive and cultural sense, our understanding of the etiology, developmental trajectory, and predictive value of animal abuse histories for later criminal activities is equivocal, incomplete and requires more research. Research can serve to legitimize and illuminate the efforts of advocates, practitioners and legislators, and the Link field is a surprisingly rich arena offering opportunities in many disciplines to break the cycles of violence in its many forms. Both research and practice are necessary to advance the field, and groups needs to work together without overstating the case. As Randy Lockwood (2008) summed up in a retrospective look at the field, "Leave your ego at the door because we've got a lot of animals and people who need help."