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Wolf in sheep's clothing

Ever hit your dog? If so, you could find yourself being investigated on suspicion of child abuse and domestic violence. Brendan O'Neill reports

'If we see someone thrashing a dog, we have to think: if this is how he treats his dog, imagine what he could do to his children.' Jim Harding, chief executive of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), is convinced that the 'forces which foster violence towards children and animals spring from the same sources'. The notion that there is a direct link between cruelty to animals and cruelty to humans is now gaining credence. In America, the ultra-trendy charity People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals argues that those who harm or torture animals as children often grow up to be wife beaters, rapists and even serial killers.

Sue Dawson, education officer at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), thinks that is going too far. 'Ian Brady had a long history of animal abuse', she points out, 'but Myra Hindley was very kind to animals. The argument doesn't follow'. But while the RSPCA may reject the crude link between harming animals in childhood and murder in adulthood, it is increasingly concerned that cruelty to animals and cruelty to humans go hand in hand. Over the past year the society has met with the NSPCC to examine the extent to which cruelty to animals in the home is an indicator of a violent family. Sue Dawson wants to move away from the extreme examples of how Jeffrey Dahmer strangled puppies as a child, because 'serial killers are few and far between'. 'What we need to look at', she says, 'are the more widespread forms of violence, particularly in the home, like child abuse and domestic violence. It is there that we find that animals are being abused, too'.

In 1997 the RSPCA and its Scottish equivalent the SSPCA funded a £10 000 study 'which could lead to the trapping of child abusers based on the way they treat their pets' (Telegraph, 6 October 1997). The aim of the study was to help veterinary surgeons spot abuse of cats and dogs, so that social services could be informed that there might be child abuse in the same home. Last year the RSPCA and the NSPCC forged closer links. Now the RSPCA has set up an internal working party on the connection between cruelty to animals and child abuse, and to work out an interagency approach to combating violence in the home. 'Abusers tend to follow a pattern', says Mike Flynn of the SSPCA. 'They start on animals and progress. Without a doubt there is a link between animal and child abuse.'

Yet is the connection between cruelty to animals and cruelty to humans so straightforward? The RSPCA flags up some horrific examples, like the dog who starved to death in the garden of a family who were also seriously neglecting their child, or the paedophile who took his 15-year old nephew to a farm to abuse him and to force him to wring the necks of small animals. But surely these are exceptional cases, which reveal more about depraved individuals than about a general link between cruelty to animals and violence towards people?

The idea that there is a link between cruelty to animals and family violence first emerged in America. The American Humane Association (AHA) is currently the only organisation in the world which has a database on violence both towards animals and children. US police forces routinely use the database when investigating cases of domestic violence and child abuse, and even murders and serial killings. On 4 October, one of the main features at a conference called First Strike Scotland, organised by the SSPCA, was a video showing the work of Dr Randall Lockwood, a psychologist and offender profiler in America's 'humane movement'. Animal charities in Britain clearly feel they can learn from America's interagency approach to violence in the home. But how reliable is the AHA's theory that cruelty to animals leads to abuse of women and children?

In a study of 57 families being treated for incidents of 'substantial' child abuse, the AHA found that 88 percent also harmed their pets - in two thirds of the families it was the violent parent who injured the animals. In another study (of 64 men), 48 percent of convicted rapists and 30 percent of convicted child molesters admitted to committing violence towards animals. Similarly, in a study carried out by the California-based Latham Foundation, a quarter of battered women seeking shelter in Colorado Springs said that animals had been neglected or killed in their homes.

All of these studies have two things in common - they are based on tiny samples (fewer than 100 in most cases), and they are based on interviews with those already convicted of violence towards people, who then claim to have a history of violence towards animals. Far from illustrating a progressive link from harming animals to child abuse and domestic violence, these studies show that the kind of men who beat women and children are also likely to beat animals. Hardly a shocking find. Yet the AHA and now animal charities in Britain are turning such surveys on their heads, to argue that violence towards animals is an indicator of violence towards women and children. A more realistic conclusion would be that in small surveys of a few violent offenders, it was found that some offenders had been cruel to animals.

In reality, the vast majority of people differentiate between the way they treat animals and the way they treat humans. A man might kick his dog or neglect to feed it properly for a couple of days because he had a lot on his mind, but never dream of kicking his wife or starving his children. Somebody might walk past a cat in distress, because they were in a hurry or just don't like animals, yet never ignore a child in need of help. My grandfather, like many Irish farmers, thrashes his dog with a stick if it is disobedient, but would never do likewise to a family member. When I was a child I 'tortured' dragonflies, killed frogs and once even killed a kitten - but I haven't turned into a serial killer yet. The fact is that you cannot judge the way people treat other people from the way they treat animals - and the research has failed to prove otherwise.

But the RSPCA is undeterred. 'What we need', says Sue Dawson, 'is a community approach to the problem of abuse. I would like to see the RSPCA, social services and the police working together to tackle different forms of abuse, and helping change attitudes'. What Dawson seems to have in mind is an interagency force, like that in America, which will knock on doors and investigate whether the man who smacks his dog in the park is also smacking his wife and kids at home.

The RSPCA has always had a nightmarish vision of working-class areas in particular as hotbeds of animal torture and cruelty - where people bet on dogfights and cockfights, and spend the rest of their idle time doing disgusting things with fireworks and cats. Dawson told me about one housing estate 'where torturing animals is part of their culture': 'Young people go around setting their dogs on cats, and it is like a rites of passage. We also found that their parents were supportive of this kind of cruelty.' Add to that vision the spectre of widespread child abuse and domestic violence, and you get an idea of the kind of mindset driving today's animal charities towards greater interference in people's lives - as captured in Dawson's anecdote about her education work in the north east: 'I was doing some work in a school, and we soon discovered that many of the children's parents were animal abusers. So we had to develop a distinct strategy - if we'd said to the children "animal abuse is wrong" and they went home and said that to their parents, they would have got beaten up.'

It cannot be too long before RSPCA officers spend as much time watching women and children in the houses they visit as they do the pet dog. But should we be so concerned? After all, aren't RSPCA officers those nice people who help neglected pets and wounded wildlife? What harm is there if they keep an eye out for neglected kids as well?

Forget the image of the RSPCA as an animal-friendly charity. The RSPCA website (www.rspca.org) boasts that the society was Britain's first-ever law-enforcement agency, and had secured over 100 convictions for animal cruelty before the police force was founded in 1826 (for more on the RSPCA's 'powers', see box). The number of people prosecuted by the RSPCA has risen by over 20 percent, from 971 in 1996 to 1195 in 1997. Now, this petty police force is keen to extend its brief, so that it can peer into families' living rooms and bedrooms as well as their kennels.

Remember, a pet is not just for Christmas - it's a life sentence.

'If they knew we had no right of entry they would tell us to piss off'

Documentaries like Animal Police show RSPCA officers entering people's homes and taking away their animals if they think they are at risk. But what powers does the RSPCA have to intervene?

According to Alex Ross of the RSPCA press office: 'RSPCA officers have no legal right of entry - but for obvious reasons we don't want to publicise that too widely. Although we don't have the right to go storming into people's houses, we have to be able to persuade them that we should come in and see their animals.

'A number of people are on the wrong side of the law, and if they knew that RSPCA officers had no legal right of entry whatsoever and could tell us to piss off, then they would. If people are really persistent, we call in the local authorities or the police to accompany us to the house, and then we can go in and search.

'Our officers never give people a false impression of having right of entry - their skills are in persuading the people to let them in.'

Brendan O'Neill

Reproduced from LM issue 125, November 1999



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