Animal Abuse and Violent Offending

Animal abuse and interpersonal violence toward humans share common characteristics: both types of victims are living creatures, have a capacity for experiencing pain and distress, can display physical signs of their pain and distress (with which humans could empathize), and may die as a result of inflicted injuries. Given these commonalities, it is not surprising that early research in this area, much of it using retrospective assessment, examined the relation between childhood histories of animal abuse and later violent offending.

Kellert and Felthous (1985) found that violent, incarcerated men reported higher rates of "substantial cruelty to animals" in childhood (25 percent) than a comparison group of nonincarcerated men (0 percent). A similar difference emerged in a study of assaultive and nonassaultive women offenders (Felthous and Yudowitz, 1977): 36 percent of the former group reported cruelty to animals compared with 0 percent of the latter.

Miller and Knutson (1997) examined self-reports of animal abuse by 299 inmates incarcerated for various felony offenses and 308 introductory psychology class undergraduates.2 The percentages of inmates and undergraduates, respectively, reporting the following types of animal abuse were as follows: "Hurt an animal?" 16.4 percent and 9.7 percent, "Killed a stray?" 32.8 percent and 14.3 percent, and "Killed a pet?" 12 percent and 3.2 percent.

More recently, Schiff, Louw, and Ascione (1999) surveyed 117 men incarcerated in a South African prison about their childhood animal abuse. Of the 58 men who had committed crimes of aggression, 63.3 percent admitted to cruelty to animals; of the 59 nonaggressive inmates, the percentage was 10.5 percent.

In a study of 28 convicted, incarcerated sexual homicide perpetrators (all men), Ressler, Burgess, and Douglas (1988) assessed the menís self-reports of cruelty to animals in childhood and adolescence. Childhood animal abuse was reported by 36 percent of the perpetrators, and 46 percent admitted to abusing animals as adolescents. Thirty-six percent of these men said they had also abused animals in adulthood. In a study by Tingle et al. (1986) of 64 convicted male sex offenders, animal abuse in childhood or adolescence was reported by 48 percent of the rapists and 30 percent of the child molesters.

Taken together, these studies suggest that animal abuse may be characteristic of the developmental histories of between one in four and nearly two in three violent adult offenders.

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Animal Abuse and Youth Violence Juvenile Justice Bulletin September 2001