Law & politics

Researching animal abuse and human violence

Dr Angus Nurse is exploring the possibility that abusing animals can lead to committing violence towards humans

Dr Angus NurseDr Angus Nurse, Associate Professor, Environmental Justice, is examining the connection between animal abuse and human violence. His research is breaking new ground by asking whether exposure to cruelty to animals can actually increase the likelihood of becoming violent towards humans.

Researchers at Middlesex University and Northumbria University Newcastle are engaged in research that examines the links between exposure to violence towards animals and human violence. While there is considerable evidence that a number of offenders involved in serious violence have some history of violence towards animals, we are looking at whether and how exposure to animal violence might affect people.

Exploring the links between animal abuse and human violence

The link between animal cruelty and violent antisocial behaviour is now largely accepted by the scientific and law enforcement communities.

At its most basic level, law enforcement agencies have identified that most serial killers have a history of animal abuse and believe that animal abuse can be an indicator of future violent offending. The basic idea (which is sometimes called The Progression Thesis) essentially argues that offenders start by abusing small animals, progress onto abusing larger animals and eventually escalate to human violence. However, it is not as simple as saying that those who start off abusing animals will become violent towards people; assessing the strength and certainty of the link between animal abuse and human violence needs to be carried out carefully. While the link between the two different types of violence is widely accepted, and supported by the evidence of some research studies, it must also be accepted that animal abuse does not automatically escalate into violent behaviour towards humans. Animal abuse is only one possible determining factor among several which could cause human violence.

As far back as the 1960s, psychology researchers identified animal abuse as a possible factor linked to sociopathic behavior, together with obsession with fire-starting and bed-wetting (past age five). The MacDonald triad was instrumental in linking these characteristics to violent behaviours, particularly homicide, and in identifying cruelty to animals as a possible indicator of future violent behaviour. Essentially, MacDonald linked poor impulse control, thrill-seeking and an inclination towards violence and inflicting harm on others as traits shared by sociopathic offenders. Subsequent studies have confirmed that cruelty to animals is a common behaviour in children and adolescents who grow up to become certain types of violent offenders.

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Animal abuse and domestic violence

Other research has examined the link between animal abuse and masculinities arguing that much domestic animal abuse involving companion animals is caused by and is a product of masculinities and power dynamics within domestic relationships. The research suggests that animal abuse and domestic abuse, particularly spousal abuse, are linked as part of an overall pattern of abuse directed by male figures towards more vulnerable members of their households.

The UK’s Animal Welfare Act 2006 now means that any person responsible for a companion animal (such as dogs or cats) has a legal duty to provide for its animal welfare. This means that companion animals need to be properly looked after and provided with the right food, a safe environment in which to live and protected from harm. Unfortunately, both companion and wild animals continue to suffer from cruelty and other forms of harm. Domestic animal abuse is often an outlet for male aggression mostly carried out by adult male offenders or child victims within the home so that animals bear the brunt of, or are at risk of, suffering from violence from a number of sources within a family.

Some animal abuse is a means to control other family members and can be a sign of a wider violent or abusive family dynamic. This can be the case where an adult male is causing harm to weaker or more vulnerable members of a family who may be unable to defend themselves (this includes companion animals). Threats of violence against an animal can be a powerful way to control children, spouses or partners who can be manipulated into remaining with an abuser by means of the control exercised over non-human companions. This means that sometimes animal abuse is less about the direct animal ‘victim’ but may be more about intimidating, controlling or coercing women and children within an abusive relationship. This can be either as a form of direct control or to persuade family members to keep silent about their abuse and suffering within the family and domestic environment.

Seeking views on exposure to animal abuse

Members of the public are invited to participate in a survey run by researchers from Middlesex University and Northumbria University who are currently conducting a research study into the links between animal abuse (violence, hurt or harm towards animals) and human violence. In particular; the research examines the extent to which exposure towards animal abuse is an indicator of, or a factor in causing, subsequent human violence. The study is being run by Dr Angus Nurse from Middlesex University and Dr Tanya Wyatt from Northumbria University.  We encourage members of the public to participate in providing their views which will greatly contribute to understanding the links between exposure to animal abuse and subsequent human violence.

This research looks at exposure to animal abuse rather than just those individuals (or groups) who have directly engaged in animal abuse and may go on to commit violence against humans. The first stage of the study is a public survey that can be freely completed online. Please participate by filling out the survey questionnaire.

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