The United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child has formally recognized the damage that witnessing violence, including violence to animals, can cause to children. The U.N. declared that children have a right to be protected from exposure to that violence

This is an important moment for our movement. The codification of this right in the U.N.’s human rights charter elevates the seriousness of animal cruelty on the world stage. 

The damage violence to animals can cause for children who witness it has long been flagged by psychologists. A recent review in the Journal of Adolescent Trauma concluded that “[w]itnessing violence predicts and increases a child’s engagement in maladaptive behaviors, including the perpetration of violence towards humans and animals. The mechanisms by which witnessing violence may lead to perpetrating violence involve desensitization, decreased empathy, learned maladaptive coping mechanisms and other learned behaviors... These processes are believed to be very similar, regardless of whether the child witnesses violence toward humans or toward animals; thus, both potentially lead to violence against animals/or people.” 

It’s a horrifying fact that children are still exposed to violence in so many forms, as victims and as witnesses, around the globe, in times of outright war and in times of peace. Domestic violence that inflicts harm on both people and pets is one such example, but hardly the only instance. 

In the course of our work in the U.S. and internationally, we have frequently seen or learned of children exposed to animal cruelty. We have documented the presence of children at dogfights and cockfights, for example. In the U.S., the federal Animal Welfare Act was amended in 2014 specifically to treat the bringing of minors under the age of 16 to animal fights as a separate crime. In addition, seven U.S. states have incorporated specific prohibitions on bringing minors to animal fights. Still, around the globe in places where animal fighting is legal, the presence of children at fights is fairly common. Additionally, when investigating animal fighters, we find that they often bring their young children to “learn the business,” exposing them to horrific animal suffering. In some cases, children have been put in charge of caring for the animals at home, only to then watch them die in the ring.  

Slaughtering animals can also be harmful for children to witness. In some countries, it’s common practice to hide the horrors of farm animal slaughter, but even here in the U.S. we have seen reports of children being employed in slaughtering plants. In nations where slaughter occurs more frequently out in the open, children are more likely to catch sight of animals being killed. For example, investigations of Tomohon Extreme Market in Indonesia by Dog Meat Free Indonesia (of which Humane Society International is a founding member) revealed horrific treatment of dogs and cats being beaten to death and sold for their meat, all carried out in plain sight of young children. (Earlier this year, after years of campaigning to end the cruelty at this market, the mayor of Tomohon issued an order to end all sale and slaughter of dogs and cats at the market.) 

Children may also witness violence against animals during routine “cullings” of animals for population control, pigeon shooting, trophy hunting, wildlife killing contests, bullfighting and animal sacrifice festivals such as Gadhimai in Nepal, all of which we have worked to end.

Violence toward animals is a concern in and of itself, but it also reverberates far and wide, involving and implicating us all, and diminishing the prospects for a better and kinder world that would benefit all who live and breathe. Animals are not the only victims of the cruelty they suffer. The U.N.’s recognition that children have a right to be protected from exposure to violence against animals is a momentous step toward a more holistic understanding of the damage animal suffering can cause, and it is a sign of the progress we’ve made in getting the world to take animal cruelty more seriously. 

Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.