Animal Cruelty And Juvenile Violence

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A Cause For Your And Society's Concern

The Humane Society of Utah and other Utah animal welfare organizations have been involved in the prevention and investigation of animal abuse since 1888. Unfortunately, many of the complaints we have received involved animal neglect and cruelty which was caused by Utah’s young and teenage children. The relationship between childhood animal abuse and related family neglect, abuse, and violence has been termed the "Link."

The unenlightened view that childhood cruelty to animals is "just a phase" or that it is just "boys being boys," is outdated and woefully inaccurate. Parents, teachers, law enforcement officers, juvenile court personnel, family services workers, and therapists are learning to recognize that youthful animal abuse can be an indicator of a very serious and inappropriate individual or family behavior. The following definition is a good working description of the problem: "Cruelty to animals is defined as socially unacceptable behavior that intentionally causes unnecessary pain, suffering, or distress to and/or death of an animal."

Headlines throughout the years, such as "WVC boy (age 12) chases his family with knife, tries to hang dog," in the November 23, 1994 Deseret News, "Tooele boys set fire to dog they didn’t like," in the Transcript-Bulletin of April 11th, 2002, "Youth Blamed For Shooting Arrow in Dog," in a Salt Lake Tribune article of January 29, 1985, and "Reward Offered For Animal Torturer" and "Youth (age 15) Admits Cruelty to S.L. Animals," in Salt Lake Tribune articles of July 23 and 28, 1962 point out some of the serious outcomes, for both children and animals, of juvenile animal abuse.

It is widely accepted that the key factor in the relationship between children and companion animals is the unconditional love and acceptance of the animal for the child, who accepts the child "as is" and does not offer feedback or criticism. Companion animals are a vital part of the healthy emotional development of children. As children develop, animals play different roles for the child in each stage of development.

Caring regularly for a pet will help a child experience the pleasures of responsible pet ownership. The responsibility for pet care should be introduced gradually and parents should realize that there will be periods when even for a conscientious child the care of a pet will be too much. The successful care of a valued pet will promote a sense of importance and being needed. By observing the pet’s biological functions, children learn about sexuality and elimination. Children use animals to feel safe and create a sense of intimacy.

Possible motives for childhood animal abuse include: to control the animal, to retaliate against an animal, to satisfy a prejudice against a species or breed, to express aggression through an animal, to enhance one’s own aggressiveness, to shock people for amusement, to retaliate against another person, displacement of hostility from a person to an animal, and nonspecific sadism in the absence of any particular provocation or especially hostile feelings toward the animals.

Juveniles who are cruel to animals are more likely to become aggressive toward humans as they develop than are their non-abusive peers. Studies have repeatedly shown that inmates in prison for violent offenses usually had histories of abusing animals during their early childhood and teenage years. Juveniles raised by abusive parents or guardians are likely to imitate such behavior with family pets, others’ animals and pets, and their peers. Children sometimes abuse animals to release the aggression that they feel towards abusive parents or guardians, or because of psychological trauma.

It may be that some juveniles begin to abuse animals to convince themselves that they don’t care about the things they often seem to lose. Some are convinced of their "badness" by parents and behave in the way that they think is expected of them. Some are imitating the family violence that seems to be a "normal" way of life for them. Others feel helpless and use animals as victims to demonstrate their power and authority or as scapegoats for the anger they feel against parents or society as a whole. Finally, some of these abusers simply seem to have never learned to value the lives of others.

Animal abuse rarely involves a single act of cruelty against one victim. An abused child becomes violent to others, including animals. It is likely that he, too, is at risk of becoming an abusive parent who, in turn, may produce another generation of violent children.

The way in which children are raised shapes their view of the world, their place in such a world, their values, and how to behave. Animals, especially pets, get entangled in the cycle of family violence in some of the following ways: Women and children are sometimes intimidated into silence about sexual or other abuse through threats made toward a favorite pet. Pets are sometimes injured or killed to punish a child.

Abused children may "act out" aggression and frustration on a pet they perceive as even more vulnerable than themselves, the old story of "my dad hits my mother, who hits my older brother, who hits me, so I’ll hit the dog." Physically or sexually abused children may kill their pets rather than allow them to be injured or killed by an abusive adult in their home. In most cases, the animal is the last victim in a chain of abuses that filters down from the strongest family member to the weakest.

Don’t ignore instances of child-caused animal neglect or abuse, whether to family pets, animals belonging to others, or to unowned or stray animals. Take the time to instruct your children concerning your own pet-related values. Demonstrate how to appropriately handle and care for family pets. Supervise your children’s interactions with family pets and correct them if they mishandle the animals, showing them the correct way.

Instill your own compassion and values in children by demonstrating that you value other family members, neighbors, animals, and the environment. Try to use non-violent problem-solving skills, compassion, and self control to resolve issues which arise in your children’s lives. Support organizations that protect animals and children from abuse by volunteering or contributing.

In instances of serious or repeated animal abuse, get your children professional assistance. Animal cruelty in childhood is often associated with other signs of poor control over aggressive impulses. Children who abuse animals should be referred for appropriate treatment inasmuch as this is not a benign stage of growing up, but rather a sign of emotional illness.

They may be suffering from a significant mental health condition known as "conduct disorder," as animal abuse can be a significant symptom, as well as interpersonal aggression and destructive behavior. The National Advisory Mental Health Council notes, "The essential feature [of conduct disorder] is a persistent pattern of behavior in which children violate social rules and the basic rights of others. Physical aggression is common. Young people with conduct disorder initiate fights and can be physically cruel to other people or to animals, and frequently deliberately destroy other people’s property (this may include fire setting)."

If incidents include direct involvement of the child, lack of self-restraint, lack of remorse, a variety of cruel acts or victims, and the inclusion of family or neighbor’s pets, the child is showing serious signs of maladaptive behavior. If you see other’s children abusing animals, advise their parents or contact local animal welfare or control officers, or local law enforcement agencies.

Related Quotations

As the twig is bent the tree’s inclined, — let the child learn that there is no being so insignificant as to be unworthy of protection, be it the worm which crawls upon the ground, or the suffering orphan or widow. The child that serves its apprenticeship to inhumanity by tearing off the wings of a fly, or robbing a bird of its eggs, when arrived at maturity, insults the poor, beats his inferiors, and shows the same cruelty, intensified by age, which characterized his early training.
Henry Bergh

A coward quite often will worry a cat
A "Regular Fellow" will never do that;
For only a coward, it’s easy to see,
Would fight with a creature that’s smaller then he.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
Kindness to Animals Club
Children’s Friend, January 1953

It is doubtful if a boy who was cruel to dumb animals ever became a true man. If the "boy is father to the man," there is no reason why unkindness to animals in boyhood should not appear in a hard, cruel disposition in mature years; and such a man is by no means successful.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
The Children’s Friend - January 1907

A boy who is so brutal as to torture a creature, however small, for his amusement, is to be pitied. He will likely grow up to be a cruel, unfeeling, hard-hearted man.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
George Q. Cannon

Cruelty to animals is one of the criteria used to identify a severely disturbed child. It can be a manifestation of a lack of empathy or compassion for the pain of others, and may also be indicative of destructive behavior which might be directed toward other human beings.
Dr. Joyce Brothers, Ph.D.

One of the most dangerous things that can happen to a child is to kill or torture an animal and get away with it.
Margaret Mead

Only if a child’s awareness and reverence for the wholeness of life are developed can his humanity to his own kind reach its full development.
Rachel Carson

To educate our people, and especially our children, to humane attitudes and actions towards all living things is to preserve and strengthen our national heritage and the moral values we champion in the world.
John F. Kennedy