Friday, June 18, 2010

'The Animal Cruelty Syndrome', or: The NY Times follows up

**TRIGGER WARNING**: The article discussed here contains some graphic and heartbreaking descriptions of animal abuse. I found it hard to read. If you think this will trigger you, I advise you not to link to it. The extracts below do not contain these descriptions. 

In March the NY Times reported that an increasing number of US States were passing legislation to bar convicted animal abusers from owning or coming into contact with pets, and to mandate child or spousal abuse officers and animal control officers to share information and report to each other when they find something wrong.

Today the NY Times has published an extended piece titled 'The Animal Cruelty Syndrome', which discusses the growing recognition that animal cruelty is part of a constellation of behaviours endemic to abusive households, gang activity and the psychologically disturbed. 

The article is by Charles Siebert, a contributing writer, who is the author of “The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals.” The article is well-written, empathetic and unflinching - I think I'd like to read this book. 

I'll try to do a more in-depth discussion when I'm not, say, at work, but for now here are some extracts. 

Back in the early 1980s, Lockwood was asked to work on behalf of New Jersey’s Division of Youth and Family Services with a team of investigators looking into the treatment of animals in middle-class American households that had been identified as having issues of child abuse. They interviewed all the members of each family as well as the social workers who were assigned to them. The researchers’ expectation going in was that such families would have relatively few pets given their unstable and volatile environments. They found, however, not only that these families owned far more pets than other households in the same community but also that few of the animals were older than 2.
“There was a very high turnover of pets in these families,” Lockwood told me. “Pets dying or being discarded or running away. We discovered that in homes where there was domestic violence or physical abuse of children, the incidence of animal cruelty was close to 90 percent. The most common pattern was that the abusive parent had used animal cruelty as a way of controlling the behaviors of others in the home. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at what links things like animal cruelty and child abuse and domestic violence. And one of the things is the need for power and control. Animal abuse is basically a power-and-control crime.”
In a separate study, a quarter of battered women reported that they had delayed leaving abusive relationships for the shelter out of fear for the well-being of the family pet. In response, a number of shelters across the country have developed “safe haven” programs that offer refuges for abused pets as well as people, in order that both can be freed from the cycle of intimidation and violence. 
What cannot be so easily monitored or ameliorated, however, is the corrosive effect that witnessing such acts has on children and their development. More than 70 percent of U.S. households with young children have pets. In a study from the 1980s, 7-to-10-year-old children named on average two pets when listing the 10 most important individuals in their lives. When asked to “whom do you turn to when you are feeling sad, angry, happy or wanting to share a secret,” nearly half of 5-year-old children in another study mentioned their pets. One way to think of what animal abuse does to a child might simply be to consider all the positive associations and life lessons that come from a child’s closeness to a pet — right down to eventually receiving their first and perhaps most gentle experiences of death as a natural part of life — and then flipping them so that all those lessons and associations turn negative. 
To date, one of the most promising methods for healing those whose empathic pathways have been stunted by things like repeated exposure to animal cruelty is, poetically enough, having such victims work with animals. Kids who tend to be completely unresponsive to human counselors and who generally shun physical and emotional closeness with people often find themselves talking openly to, often crying in front of, a horse — a creature that can often be just as strong-willed and unpredictable as they are and yet in no way judgmental, except, of course, for a natural aversion to loud, aggressive human behaviors. 

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