Motivations That May Underlie Animal Abuse by Children and AdolescentsWhenever high-profile cases of animal abuse are reported in the media, a common public reaction is to ask: "Why would someone do that?" Burying puppies alive, shooting wild mustangs, setting a dog on fire, beating a petting zoo donkeythese and countless other examples offend the public by their seemingly senseless cruelty. In an effort to better understand this phenomenon, Kellert and Felthous (1985: 1122–1124) interviewed abusers and discovered a number of motivations that may characterize adult cruelty to animals, some of which may also be applicable to animal abuse perpetrated by juveniles:
Child and adolescent motivations for animal abuse have not been studied as extensively. However, case reports and a youth interview study (using the Cruelty to Animals Assessment Instrument) conducted by Ascione, Thompson, and Black (1997) suggest a number of developmentally related motivations:
CD assessments are not usually designed to discover the underlying reasons for a child's or adolescent's cruelty to animals, but as with juvenile firesetting (discussed below), understanding motivations may be critical for designing effective intervention strategies. A recent review by Agnew (1998) provides a more extensive treatment of the social-psychological causes of animal abuse.
As noted by Ascione and Lockwood (2001), one model that could be used to develop an animal abuse assessment instrument is the approach that has been taken to assess juvenile firesetting. Firesetting shares many features with animal abuse: both are CD symptoms, may reflect developmental changes, may share etiological factors, may often be performed covertly, and may be early sentinels for later psychological problems.
Some children may manifest both problem behaviors. Wooden and Berkey (1984) noted the co-occurrence of cruelty to animals in a sample of 69 firesetters ages 4–17: cruelty to animals was reported for 46 percent of 4- to 8-year-olds, 9 percent of 9- to 12-year-olds, and 12 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds. The authors caution that the lower rates for older children and adolescents may be related to the covert nature of this behavior, as children experience greater independence and venture farther from home for more prolonged periods. Sakheim and Osborne (1994) reported similar results with samples of children who set fires (n=100) and those who did not (n=55). Fifty percent of the firesetters' parents reported that their children had been cruel "to children or animals," but only 9 percent of parents of the children who did not set fires reported the same (p<0.01).
Animal abuse in the context of firesetting may also have predictive value. Rice and Harris (1996) reported on a sample of 243 firesetters who had resided in a maximum-security psychiatric facility and were later released. In a followup of 208 of these men, Rice and Harris found that a childhood history of cruelty to animals (coded from patient records) predicted violent offense recidivism (p<0.001) and nonviolent offense recidivism (p<0.05) but not firesetting recidivism.5
The Salt Lake City Area Juvenile Firesetter/Arson Control and Prevention Program (1992), funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, is based on a typology of juvenile firesetters that may be relevant for developing a typology for children who abuse animals (Marcel Chappuis, personal communication, March 23, 1998). The typology of juvenile firesetters categorizes children into the following groups:
The Salt Lake City program has developed a series of assessment scales geared to each age group of firesetters that can be administered to the child and the child's parent/guardian. In addition to questions about fire education and the firesetting incident(s), this series has questions about general behavior problems (similar to items on the CBC), including one item about cruelty to animals. (There is also a direct question about whether the firesetting incident involved the burning of an animal.) Responses to these assessments are used to select an intervention strategy. Children who fall into the normal curiosity group are often enrolled in a fire education program, and attempts may be made to educate parents about fire safety and the need for supervising young children. Children who fall into the other two groups are referred to mental health services because fire departments are not prepared to deal with the psychological problems these young people may present.
It might be possible to develop a similar typology for children who abuse animals. Although there is not a great deal of empirical information on which to rely, the study by Ascione, Thompson, and Black (1997) suggests the varied motivations that may underlie child and adolescent animal abuse. Using the extensive experience of animal control and animal welfare professionals, one could develop a typology mirroring that for juvenile firesetters. A sketch of such a typology might approximate the following: