Understanding the connection between violence towards animals and violence towards people

This guest blog was written originally for the SPCA of Texas by Marlo Clingman

WARNING: In this series of posts, the SPCA of Texas addresses some deeply serious issues surrounding the connection between violence towards animals and violence towards people. Some of the graphic information below may be disturbing to some readers.

On February 14th, 2018, Nikolas Cruz walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, pulled the fire alarm and began shooting at the students and teachers who poured out into the hallways, murdering 17 people and injuring many more.

Perhaps even more tragically, those who knew the shooter were not surprised to learn that he was the perpetrator. He’d been terrorizing his community by throwing rocks at cars, stealing, stalking female classmates and getting into physical altercations. His social media profiles featured posts bragging about his guns and abusing animals. While several warning signs pointed to this individual’s likelihood to commit acts of violence against people, the predilection for cruelty to animals has proven to be one of the biggest indicators for future violent crime.

Many animals suffered at the hands of this person before the events of February 14th. People who know Cruz have alleged that squirrels, chickens, piglets, rabbits, toads, and in one case, a chameleon were the objects of his rage. People at times excuse these incidents of animal cruelty as “kids being kids.” It is terrifying to admit that a child you know or perhaps even care about is carrying out these violent acts to satisfy their sadistic impulses. The consequences that can occur when concerns go unreported or unanswered, however, can be devastating.

All of this begs the question; what do we do? Unfortunately, there isn’t one simple answer.

From the National LINK Coalition’s statement on the shooting:

“The etiology of interpersonal violence is always complex, and this case is no exception. Preliminary media reports also indicate that Cruz had a history of being bullied, had experienced the deaths of both parents, was aggressive, and had undergone mental health treatment. It is far too simplistic to say that “animal abuse always leads to human violence,” but the evidence is quite clear that animal cruelty – especially repeated, remorseless, boastful incidents — must be recognized as a significant warning sign to be taken seriously.”

Furthermore, it is impossible to accurately predict how violence against animals will manifest later in life. Those sadistic tendencies may appear in the form of domestic violence, child abuse, criminal activity or serial killing. In terms of indicators of mass acts of violence, animal abuse should be considered just one piece of a puzzle rather than a direct predictor.

“Examining 8 school massacres that occurred between 1996 and 1999, the Verlinden et al. (2000) study investigated the prevalence of various warning signs, including but not limited to prior animal cruelty, among the 10 perpetrators. Although they report that half of their sample of 10 shooters (Evan Ramsey, Luke Woodham, Kipland Kinkel, Eric Harris, and Dylan Klebold) allegedly had some history of animal abuse, this proportion, while substantial and worthy of attention by researchers, policy makers, and others, seems to fall remarkably below the many hyperbolic reports of its commonness by advocates of the link, as noted above. This is particularly the case when one considers how this 50% threshold compares with the prevalence of other so-called warning signs addressed in the very same study (Verlinden et al., 2000, p. 43), such as experiencing a “stressful event/loss of status” (80%), exhibiting signs of depression (80%), having a “preoccupation with violent media/music” (90%), and feeling “rejected by peers” and being “picked on [and] persecuted” (both 90%), not to mention the characteristics that all of the sample’s school shooters demonstrated that include having a “fascination with weapons and explosives,” “blaming others for problems,” and threatening violence in advance of the attack.”

Arluke, A., & Madfis, E. (2013). Animal Abuse as a Warning Sign of School Massacres: A Critique and Refinement. Homicide Studies.

There are so many questions about how we should address early signs of violence against animals:

  • How do law enforcement, parents and schools intervene when they observe a child committing acts of violence against animals?
  • How do we make it easier for students, employers and peers in the community to report disturbing behavior to authorities?
  • Once reported, what resources do social services and law enforcement agencies have to address the problem in an effective manner?
  • Is it possible to rehabilitate these adolescents through counseling?
  • What level of mental healthcare coverage should we expect insurers to cover?
  • Should individuals with a history of violence towards people and/or animals be banned from owning a firearm?
  • How do we stop these individuals from escalating their violent criminal activity without violating their civil rights?
  • To what degree should social media platforms bear responsibility for reporting alarming content that gets flagged for violating community guidelines to the authorities?

None of these questions have a clear and simple answer. The North Texas LINK Coalition is part of a nationwide conversation to identify strategies, policies and legislation that can help break the cycle of violence to make our community a safer place for both people and animals.

To learn more about the LINK, please visit the North Texas LINK Coalition website. To learn about how to lobby your local representatives to pass humane legislation, visit Texas Humane Legislation Network.

About the SPCA of Texas
The SPCA of Texas is the leading animal welfare organization in North Texas. Founded in 1938, the non-profit operates two shelters, three spay/neuter clinics, two mobile spay/neuter vehicles, one mobile adoptions vehicle and an animal rescue center, all located in Dallas and Collin Counties, and maintains a team of animal cruelty investigators who respond to thousands of calls in seven North Texas counties. Moreover, the SPCA of Texas serves as an active resource center for an array of services that bring people and animals together to enrich each other’s lives. The SPCA of Texas is not affiliated with any other entity and does not receive general operating funds from the City of Dallas, State of Texas, federal government or any other national humane organization. The SPCA of Texas is dedicated to providing every animal exceptional care and a loving home. To learn more about the SPCA of Texas, visit www.spca.org. DONATE WITH CONFIDENCE – Tax ID: 75-1216660