October 23, 2009
Childhood Cruelty to Animals: Breaking the Cycle of Abuse
An educator's guide to reporting abuse and intervening on behalf of children and families at risk
Teachers, daycare providers, humane educators, youth group leaders, and others who work with children may come across a young person who has witnessed or perpetrated an act of animal cruelty. Here, you can learn more about childhood cruelty to animals, the link between animal cruelty and violence toward people, and find out how to report animal abuse and intervene on behalf of children and families at risk.
As an educator, why should I be concerned about childhood cruelty to animals?
It is well documented that animal cruelty is a sign of serious psychological distress. It often indicates that a child has either experienced violence firsthand or is at risk of becoming violent toward people. Many studies in psychology, criminology, and sociology have demonstrated that violent offenders frequently have childhood and adolescent histories of serious and repeated animal cruelty. As early as the 1970s, the FBI’s analysis of the lives of serial killers revealed that most had, as children, killed or tortured animals Other research has shown consistent patterns of animal cruelty among perpetrators of more common violence, including child abuse, spouse abuse, and elder abuse. As educators, we must recognize that children who deliberately abuse animals—or talk about animal abuse in the home—are crying out for help and need immediate attention.
What is animal cruelty?
The term "animal cruelty" is used to encompass a range of behaviors harmful to animals, from unintentional neglect to intentional abuse. Intentional cruelty is abuse by which a person knowingly deprives an animal of food, water, shelter, socialization, or veterinary care or maliciously kills, tortures, maims, or mutilates an animal. According to most state laws, failing to provide a pet with adequate food, water, and shelter or using physical force sufficient to leave a mark or otherwise cause injury constitutes cruelty to animals.
How can I tell the difference between innocent exploration and intentional animal cruelty?
Many children go through a stage of exploration during which they might harm insects or other small animals. With guidance from parents and teachers, most eventually develop empathy for animals and understand that they can feel pain. Still, some children persist in harming or tormenting animals well past the age of curious exploration. Such behavior is seen more often in boys than in girls and may appear as early as age four. Without intervention, those children can become locked into a lifetime pattern of violent behavior. It is particularly important to intervene when a child’s actions are motivated by a desire to harm (as opposed to simple curiosity), or a child continues to harm animals despite adult correction. These are signs that the child might be suffering from a psychological problem, such as conduct disorder or psychopathic thought processes.
How can I find out if a child has witnessed or perpetrated animal cruelty?
A child who has witnessed animal cruelty might recount an incident that took place at home or in the neighborhood. Some abused children will not talk about their own experiences but will reveal what is happening to their pet. Abused children often "act out" their own experiences on pets or release their fear and frustration by harming animals. A child who abuses animals sometimes boasts about it, either in conversation or in a story. Engaging children in storytelling, role playing, creative writing, or drawing can help you find out if a child is in distress. Other factors that coincide with childhood cruelty to animals can help you identify children at risk as well. Children who deliberately hurt animals typically have poor grades and tend to be more involved in bullying, vandalism, and more serious crimes, such as arson.
What should I do if I suspect a child has abused an animal? What should I do if a child reports that a family member has abused an animal?
Discuss your suspicions with a school team comprised of the principal, psychologist, and the law enforcement officer assigned to your school. Together, review the child's behavior, including attendance, peer relations, and academic performance. Hold a parent/teacher/principal consultation and communicate your concerns and findings. Explain to the child's parents why it's necessary to alert authorities regarding animal cruelty. Report suspected animal cruelty to the humane investigator at your local animal welfare agency. If no such organization exists, report the incident to the police department. Based on the student's history and your school's findings, you may need to file a report with the local child protective services agency. Children who abuse animals are often victims of abuse themselves or have witnessed domestic violence. If you suspect child abuse or neglect, report it immediately to your child protection agency. All states require this of teachers and provide reporting teachers with immunity. Document conversations and evidence and be ready and willing to testify in cases of abuse and neglect.
How else can I help break the cycle of abuse?
Educate others about the connection between animal cruelty and other violent crimes, including child abuse. Speak to your local PTA, child protective services agency, animal shelter, clergy, school counselor and psychologist, veterinarians, judges, police, and others. Learn about violence prevention programs and coalitions in your area. Make your classroom a kind one. Teaching by example is a teacher’s most powerful tool. Your efforts to rescue a spider, feed birds, or start a collection for your local animal shelter will make a lasting impression. Consider establishing a humane education program in your school that helps students develop empathy and compassion for people and animals.
Tales Kids Tell: The Humane Educator's Role in Breaking the Cycle of Abuse - In this online course, you'll explore the problem of childhood/family cruelty to animals, how to recognize that cruelty is happening in a child’s home, and proactive solutions including youth outreach, humane education, and community partnerships.
- National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect
- National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
- National Council on Child Abuse & Family Violence
- Society and Animals Forum
- Child Abuse, Domestic Violence, and Animal Abuse: Linking the Circles of Compassion for Prevention and Intervention, edited by Frank R. Ascione and Phil Arkow (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1999).
- Children and Animals: Exploring the Roots of Kindness and Cruelty, by Frank Ascione (Purdue University Press, 2005). Available at www.thepress.purdue.edu.
- Clinical Assessment of Juvenile Animal Cruelty, by Shari Lewchanin, Psy.D., and Ellen Zimmerman, L.C.S.W. (Brunswick, ME: Biddle Publishing Company, 2000).
- Cruelty to Animals and Interpersonal Violence: Readings in Research and Application, edited by Randall Lockwood and Frank R. Ascione (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1998). Society and Animals: Journal of Human-Animal Relations, available at www.psyeta.org/sa.
- Teaching Compassion: A Guide for Humane Educators, Teachers, and Parents (2001) and Teaching Empathy: Animal-Assisted Therapy Programs for Children and Families Exposed to Violence (2004), by Libby Coleman and Lynn Loar, available at latham.org.
- Violence Prevention and Intervention: A Directory of Animal-Related Programs, by Debra K. Duel (The Humane Society of the United States, 2000).
- What Is Animal Cruelty? And What Can You Do About It? coloring book - Enlist kids in the fight against cruelty with this 24-page booklet. Coloring pages and a tips section explain reasons behind animal abuse, cruelty, and neglect, guide children in spotting and reporting cases, and discuss animals’ need for gentle care, respect, and love. Includes a “Junior Animal Care Agent” badge for kids to personalize and a quiz to test what they’ve learned. For ages 7 & up.
- Beyond Violence: The Human-Animal Connection (© 1999, Society and Animals Forum). 13 min. Also available in English and Spanish at societyandanimalsforum.org.
- Breaking the Cycles of Violence (© 2004, The Latham Foundation). 26 min.; includes 64-page training manual for animal welfare and human services professionals. Available at latham.org.
- Patterns of Abuse: Exploding the Cycle (© 1999, Eric Friedl and the Anti-Cruelty Society). 23 min. Available at pyramidmedia.com.