American Veterinary Medical Association, Animal Welfare Division, Schaumburg, IL, USA
Having established that animal abuse is commonly perpetrated by people who are not empathetic towards animals or who are anti-social, it is logical that preventive humane education programs are generally targeted towards correcting these defects.1 There is evidence that programs of this type cause a measurable increase in expressed empathy but longer-term effects on overt behavior are rarely studied and have not been demonstrated.2,3 More generalized educational targets, such as teaching self-regulation and providing knowledge about animals and other cultures, may also be productive targets for educations.
A lack of information about the potential abuse motivations present or developing in a community may impair the match between the prevailing vulnerabilities and the forms of humane education provided. For example, children in environments where they are likely to have unavoidable adverse experiences, programs that focus on source of personal resilience may be important. Also, where anti-social subculture is prevalent, targeted education may “immunize” children against internalizing these messages. Despite these disclaimers, the existing well-designed forms of humane education are often good sources of prosocial role model information about animals and other beneficial features and should be used whenever available.
Improved programs might be developed by employing valid screening and uniform approaches which start to place the response to cruelty more into a public health space. We are currently only beginning to standardized and validate approaches to even basic mental health categories such as psychopathy.4 A number of scales to assess animal abuse propensity are under development and showing promising results (e.g., ATTAS5, AAPS6).
Ultimately there needs to be a reversal of approach such that screening of the general population is positively motivated and aims to identify how children of all types can find their best success. For example, children who need high energy or even aggressive activities should be given prosocial opportunities that meet these needs. And impulsive or unemotional children are given structured training to help them develop longer-term prosocial goals - while also recognizing and building on each child’s particular strengths and talents.
In animal welfare there is a popular theory that refers to the umwelt of the animal.7 It asserted that each animal is made to engage with the environment in a particular way and fits is optimal environment like a key in the lock, with a seamless dialogue between stimulus, response, and satisfying outcome. The modern human environment tends to fit some idea of the “normal” human that often does not properly embrace human diversity. What we need are environments that are not fixed, but are adaptable and adjustable, and where children and other people with changing needs are offered the best prosocial fit they can possibly have, including the availability of diverse subcultures and special-interest groups.
As a part of this process every effort needs to be made to reduce the unnecessary experience of adverse events, especially by children. But it should be recognized that many people develop extreme traits in what would generally be considered low stress environments. This may be because the normative environment does not meet their needs or they have extreme traits that are innate or acquired very early in life. Generally, well-adjusted families tend to under-react to the signs of a child with extreme traits beginning to struggle in a onesize-fits-all world.
Some of the clearest examples of this come from children with callous, unemotional personalities who begin to display violence. Even without the shortcut of emotional empathy there is growing evidence that children can learn to control impulsive motivations through a cognitive understanding their consequences, but this requires are very different style of teaching and parent that can be challenging for more neurotypical providers to learn. It involves creating explicit incremental lessons to acquire understandings that they themselves learned through very early and unconscious processes.
It is our cultural default to wait too long, tolerate too much, and then respond in punitive ways - triggered by the danger the individual now presents to others. This delayed-punitive response fosters continued denial of the warning signs in other at-risk individuals. Positive screening of a kind that would interrupt this cycle is some way off, but elements of it can be seen in teaching and management methods that recognize neurodiversity, and opportunities available particularly to those with more resources to explore different approaches to mental health and education.
While education may change attitudes, explicit rules, monitoring, and tangible consequences have the strongest effect on overt behavior. For most people who are marginally prosocial the greater factor affects their overt behavior is the functioning of civic structures particularly law enforcement in the form of the integrated and professional operation of human, animal, and environmental agencies. In relation to preventing animal abuse one of the most important factors is a financially and politically stable animal care and control workforce including recognized professionals who are cross trained, cross-report, and cross respond with other agencies.8 Especially when these agencies are proactive in establishing positive expectations and responding proportionately to minor infractions. An active licensing and ticketing program is associated with reduced adverse outcomes (e.g., euthanasia of unwanted animals, dog bites9).
The US National Animal Care and Control Association provides a model for a financially self-supported program to register dogs and other animals, provide humane education, and respond to animal abuse and dangerous animals. For a large group in society who have sufficient skills to care for animals but can cause suffering through simple and common motivations the likelihood of being detected is the single most important factor for preventing or intervening early in the development of abusive behavior. Cross reporting and responding assists in early intervention with household where there are mental health challenges or developing criminal behavior.
The failure of these structures is very plain to see in some communities. In the United States professionalization and training of law enforcement is variable and most jurisdictions have no required qualifications for animal control officers. The symptoms of this failure include: police being poorly trained in and poorly responsive to crimes against animals, crimes against animals being handled by individuals who are not fully empowered law enforcement officers, police responding to aggressive animals by shooting them even when the animal’s aggression is normal, for example during a police raid. It is telling that although police realize that shooting pet dogs has a bad outcome, involving expert animal handlers such as animal control officers is still not a solution they consider, even for planned raids on known households.10
Models for success are also available such as the NYPDASPCA partnership, FBI recognition of animal cruelty as a crime against society, and many initiatives under the Link umbrella. However, these cross-disciplinary efforts have proved to be surprisingly unsustainable. It is not that they do not succeed but their success depends on the extraordinary effort of small numbers of individuals, and programs are always vulnerable to defunding and the loss of key personnel. Local government often fail to appreciate that ongoing investment is required even after the immediate goals of a program have been met. Lower cost simplistic strategies are allowed to compete with proven models - such as aggressive “stop-and-frisk” policing and breed specific bans on animals.
During the recession in the United States many local governments defunded programs relating to animal control, humane education, and domestic violence. These are routinely the first public services to crumble under pressure when arguably they should be considered core programs due to their preventive and long-term consequences. Raising programs of this type to the highest regulatory level and documenting their benefits both socially and financially would assist in making them more sustainable over the long-term so that successful models can be identified and propagated.
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