We Need to Talk About Animal Cruelty and Mass Shooters

Mid-discussions about whether recent massacres in Uvalde (Texas) and Buffalo (New York), should cause policymakers to concentrate more on mental illness or gun control, there’s an elephant in the room. Both cases are characterized by a predisposition to cruelty to animals.

Two 18-year olds were disturbed by their abuse of animals and shared online material about it. This must prompt lawmakers to ask whether measures to prevent animal cruelty and intervene before it escalates could avoid more harm—to animals and humans alike.

Since long, animal cruelty has been a predictor for violence against people. Research shows that abusers of animals are five times more likely than to cause harm to humans. Family violence is an example of this strong correlation. The Uvalde, Texas case started with the suspect killing his grandmother.

Of course, most people who abuse animals don’t become mass shooters, and there are other characteristics many mass shooters share, such as misogyny and violence against women. The perpetrator of 27 out 46 mass shooting cases studied had either a history or was a victim of domestic violence.

However, an analysis of school shootings, 1988-2012, revealed that 43 percent had history of animal cruelty. The perpetrator of Parkland High School’s massacre in Parkland FL 2018 was also a long-term animal abuser. Given reports that the Uvalde shooter was bullied in school, it’s also notable that youngsters who engage in animal cruelty are more than twice as likely as others to be victims of abuse themselves.

It is not surprising that animal cruelty can be linked to violence against people. Animals feel pain and respond to it in similar ways to human beings. The effects can be difficult to discern since different types of people may abuse animals in different ways. Furthermore, repeat abuse could increase the victims’ awareness of the effect of their actions.

This dynamic is sometimes referred to as “moral disengagement.” In this way, a person who intentionally inflicts pain on animals divorces themselves from the consequences through techniques such as rationalization and blaming the victim that may also characterize a similarly violent impulse towards humans. Regardless of what explains the correlation, if those aware of a young person’s cruelty to animals ignore it, a valuable opportunity to intervene is missed, especially given evidence that this behavior is most easily corrected at an early age.

Three priorities are key to addressing animal cruelty. They include 1) encouraging reporting and intervention that combine accountability with treatment; 2) improving law enforcement training and (3) encouraging information sharing and collaboration between agencies and jurisdictions.

When it comes to reporting, one challenge is that those who are most likely to be aware of this behavior are family and friends, who may be reluctant to turn in the abuser given that animal cruelty is rightfully a criminal offense—typically a misdemeanor. However, it isn’t listed among youth incarcerated for animal cruelty. This could reflect the recognition that kids are often more troubled than they solve.

Though incarceration isn’t the answer, neither is ignoring this problem. There are proven interventions that include components like one-on-one counseling, accountability measures and mandatory participation in groups sessions. These programs focus on developing empathy, challenging inner beliefs and frustration management.

Training for law enforcement officers should also be improved. Many small areas lack an animal control agent or officer. Indiana is one example of this. General police officers must have sufficient knowledge and experience to recognize cruelty cases, regardless of whether they refer them to specialists. In other areas, a general officer might be responsible for the investigation. A study revealed that only 19% of officers have received such training, while a separate survey found that 49% of officers felt they did not receive the training. These cases require specialized training, such as working with vets and preserving evidence.

The sharing of information should be a top priority. Collaboration between relevant agencies is also a key goal. Only 14 states (not including Texas and New York) require that child welfare employees and animal control officers cross-report ongoing animal cruelty incidents. In order to exchange information about common cases, Connecticut’s agencies for agriculture and families joined hands with the Attorney General in 2011 under a law that was passed by Connecticut legislators.

Animal cruelty is worth fighting on its own terms, but all too often, it’s also a canary in the coal mine. While it is far from the only factor for policymakers to address in seeking to prevent mass shootings and other violence, it is an area that has received short shift—and one where bipartisan agreement might be possible.

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