American Veterinary Medical Association, Animal Welfare Division, Schaumburg, IL, USA
The most widely accepted definition of animal abuse is: “Socially unacceptable behavior that intentionally causes unnecessary pain, suffering, or distress to, and/or death of an animal”.1 It is important to recognize that this is a hybrid definition in that it defines animal cruelty 1) as a crime with a victim experiencing suffering or death, and also 2) that this outcome must be deemed unnecessary and socially unacceptable, and 3) the conduct must be “intentional” although the motivation need not be sadistic (seeking suffering as the primary outcome). Various experts support narrowing or expanding this definition, which would have far-reaching consequences for our understanding of this behavior and its associations.2
Settling on this particular scope also has a lot of implications for the attempts being made to unpack what the more common animal cruelty motivations are and how they develop - including our attempts to understand how animal cruelty connects to other types of behavior and behavior categories like violence and antisocial behavior. Most of the extant theories have some benefits and some limitations when it comes to developing preventive and treatment strategies, and the underlying data is incomplete and complex. Currently there are three major models for how animal abuse is connected to other socially unacceptable behaviors.
The Graduation Hypothesis
The graduation hypothesis suggests that animal abuse is a crime that indicates dangerousness that is likely to escalate and result in crimes against human victims such as serial murder, and this idea is now very widely accepted by the public. It is a theory with a very long history and which is present in different cultures.
There is, however, a tension created by relying on this narrative. While is can be extremely effective for gaining traction with influential groups that are not particularly concerned about animal issues, it can also be seen as marginalizing animals as victims. But the greatest issue with this theory comes from combining it with a relatively broad definition of animal abuse.
By the current definition, animal abuse is not an especially rare behavior. Surveys of control “normal” populations of males sometimes reveal that a majority report having committed at least one act of animal abuse and overall rates of approximately 30% are common. In this context the rates of animal abuse found in known violent and criminal population are not clearly in a different category from normative populations.3 Our current definition of animal abuse includes individuals that demonstrate many different types and frequencies of behavior and may be further distorted by people not remembering or reporting acts they do not consider relevant or significant, or that they are ashamed of. Based on current research the connection between abuse of animal and people is somewhat correlated but no more so than correlations with crimes against property, self-harming behaviors, and other risk factors such as poverty.
Special Association Theories
One way to try and narrow the scope of study to a forensically useful range is to look at connections between animal abuse and other more specific and uncommon types of behavior. The most famous example of this approach is the Macdonald triad4 which suggests a special connection between animal abuse, fire setting, and bed wetting. Many decades of research have also failed to support a particular link between these three. Nevertheless, it continues to be the theory that refuses to not fade away based partially on its early adoption by the FBI.
It is worth remembering that almost every theory of special connections is based upon suggesting a common underlying motivation for the different behaviors - often rather speculatively. For the graduation hypothesis it is typically callous or sadistic personality. For the Macdonald triad it is the offender’s desire to rebel and act out against rules and defy authority. And more recently researchers have adopted the idea that animal cruelty and fire setting are linked by a desire to exert personal power and control. In terms of motivation or mens rea these are very distinct and separate motivation types, and popular theories tend to track the predominant moral anxiety of the community at that time.
Other researchers have largely abandoned the idea of emphasizing particular connections, coming up with different expressions of the diffuse manner in which these correlations function in the form of general strain theory or general deviance theory. In relation to children this same approach is represented by research that connects the frequency of adverse experiences, brain health, and later antisocial behavior - linked by the concept of toxic stress.5
This more cumulative and non-specific appreciation of vulnerability is better able to encompass all of the reasons why a person might not conform to social expectations - which encompasses incompetency, oppositional attitudes, and active motivations like status building, control-seeking, and sadism. But in terms of sadism it better places these cases in their proper concept which is to say, sadistic violence is extremely rare even in populations of known abusers and violent criminals where it rarely exceeds 2%.
The Role of Severity
What seems to be needed is a separation in the streams of research on this topic. On one side we have the greatest amount of animal suffering which is caused predominantly by relatively simple motivations by people who are not seriously psychologically disordered. But on the other hand, a smaller proportion of people who are highly compromised or sadistic/psychopathic do a disproportionate amount of harm. And an understanding of how to address these problems will be easier to reach if they are recognized as qualitatively different phenomena. As such, those focused on the reduction of harm to animals might tend to focus on the larger population with fewer pathological characteristics, and the smaller population that commit more serious types of abuse would be more salient to law enforcement and forensic psychology.
The best place to draw the line between these two groups is still being determined, however, relevant factors are having a “deliberate” motivation, the number of abuse events, the use of severe and hands-on violence, and the abuse of domesticated animals especially family pets.6 Perpetrators of these more serious types of abuse are rare in normative and control populations, are more likely to display measurable psychological abnormalities, and are more likely to be dangerous to the community in other ways. In this group there is evidence that stronger correlations are found, especially when comparing similar acts against humans and animals, such as violent physical assaults.
The Public Health Approach to Violence
When addressing the larger population that typically carry out less severe forms of abuse, or forms with ambiguous social acceptance, models for research and responding that show the most promise treat violence as a “public health” problem. People in this diverse group typically commit abusive acts for a simple but somewhat idiosyncratic reason such as ignorance, anger, or attempts to intimidate and control others. These broad categorizations are a context against which individual motivations can be revealed and addressed. There are no reliable ways to leap from symptom (violence) to response (preventative program or treatment), without understanding the intervening motivation. However, one model that has proved helpful in revealing the prevailing factors at work in a community is the “violence as contagion” theory.7
A major limiting factor to responding to animal abuse and other problematic behaviors at the community level is that many people have little sympathy for or interest in working with perpetrators, and resources for working in some at-risk areas are very limited. When interventions do occur, for example in relation to a criminal conviction, the literature shows that mental health professionals habitually over-estimate the dangerousness of violent offenders which can interfere with treatment and rehabilitation. The use of a public health model and objective risk and proclivity scales for children and adults8 may begin to allow effective responding that is truly preventative of the forms of animal abuse that result in the greatest amount of animal suffering.
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