Toronto Star

December 4, 1999

Why Ottawa got tough on cruelty to animals

Abuse of pets linked to violence against humans

By Lynda Hurst
Toronto Star Feature Writer

Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, sundry American teenagers who've blown away their schoolmates, Canada's own Mark Lépine who massacred 14 women in Montreal.

They all had something in common besides being multiple murderers. They'd all practised their sadistic aggression on animals first.

The grisly link, first spotted by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation in the 1970s, was an easy one to file away: mass murderers were surely too much of a human aberration to mean much of anything.

Only it isn't just them. Evidence showing that what begins with cruelty to animals can end with violence against humans - particularly women and children - is now considered conclusive.

It's a key reason why Justice Minister Anne McLellan this week announced tough new legislation to crack down on abusers. Animals will no longer be considered property in the Criminal Code, maximum prison terms will rise from six months to five years, and the ceiling taken off the current $2,000 fine.

Animal-welfare organizations have been lobbying for decades for changes to the existing century-old law. But pressure from the public also escalated steadily, especially in recent months after several widely-covered cases of intentional cruelty.

People in the Toronto area were outraged this summer when Nikita, a year-old Rottweiler, was dragged by a choke chain behind her owner's truck, leaving streaks of blood on the road and her paws rubbed almost to the bone. And also when Joey, a tiny teacup poodle, was smashed to the sidewalk, leaving him permanently leaning to one side. And when eight cats were found viciously mutilated, one of them decapitated, in a case that's still unsolved.

After thousands of petitions, Ottawa finally got the message that the public no longer will tolerate the intentional abuse of animals.

But in a background paper, the justice department said it was also motivated by ``the growing body of scientific evidence that suggests animal abuse is correlated to, and therefore also a warning sign for, potential further violence and criminality.''

Most of that evidence has been American.

Studies there show that 48 per cent of convicted rapists and 30 per cent of child molesters admit tormenting or killing animals in childhood or adolescence. A history of animal cruelty has also been found in 36 per cent of those who assaulted women and 46 per cent of men who'd committed sexual homicide.

As Deborah Duel of the U.S. Humane Society in Washington puts it, ``animal cruelty doesn't exist in a vacuum. It is a clear indication of other violence, in the past, present or future. Not every kid is going to grow up to be Jeffrey Dahmer, but he could grow up to hurt women or children.''

But is the story the same in Canada, a less culturally violent country?

Winnipeg police sergeant Jim McIsaac decided to comb national crime data to find out. He looked at the records of those who've been charged with animal cruelty to see if they had other reported incidents of violent behaviour. Seventy per cent did - everything from uttering threats to homicide.

``Cruelty to animals is a red flag,'' he says. ``It's all about power and control, just as it is with humans. The connection between the two is real, but just starting to be talked about up here.''

It's more than being talked about at the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

In the last two years, the OSPCA has set up six Violence Prevention Coalitions throughout the province to educate police forces, child-welfare workers and battered-women counsellors on the place of animal abuse in the chain of human violence.

Informal relationships between animal- and child-abuse workers have existed quietly for years. OSPCA investigators have frequently alerted Children's Aid staff when they realize, or even suspect, a pet isn't the only being in a house who's in danger.

Similarly, social workers have reported everything from overt animal cruelty to callous neglect, says Nancy Dale, north branch manager of the Toronto Children's Aid Society.

``Our main priority is the children, but one good thing with them is that when they get to the stage where they can talk, you can hope they'll tell someone what's happening. Animals can't talk. We describe children as invisible, but animals truly are.''

Debby Hunt, a veteran OSPCA investigator, says she's had numerous cases where she's gone out on an animal-abuse call and come back to make a cross-report to a human-welfare agency.

``I've seen children in apparent distress, thin and dirty, and I've called Children's Aid. In one case, a man had thrown a cat off a 7th-floor balcony in front of his girlfriend's six-year-old son and I called the CAS. I could go on and on.''

Hunt doesn't need scientific proof that animal and human violence are both part of the same disturbed picture. She sees it all the time. When she recently checked into a report of a man beating his dog, she noticed his wife had a back brace on, and asked her about it.

``She said she'd had a car accident. Right. Then I asked her if the dog was friendly, and she said, `Oh yes. Even when my husband beats me, the dog is friendly.' Well there it was.''

Sometimes there's little Hunt can do outside her own mandate.

``There was a guy who was going ballistic on his dog. While I was there, his 9- and 10-year-old sons were telling me to f--- off. All I could do was say to him, `Really good parenting skills, eh.' He didn't, shall we say, appreciate that.''

The OSPCA wants to broaden the network of agencies participating in the program to include, for instance, those who care for the elderly, and who know how intimidated they can be if someone threatens or harms their pets.

It plans to cross-train them on how to recognize all signs of abuse, says co-ordinator Pauline Costello, and then set up formal reporting protocols.

``If police are laying a charge of animal cruelty, we want them to ask who else is in the home and at risk - a child, a spouse, an elderly person, a handicapped person? And the other way around if they are there for domestic abuse. Where's the animal? We want it to be second nature.''

Police in many American states are taking animal cruelty far more seriously these days, according to psychologist Randall Lockwood, vice-president of the U.S. Humane Society and a leading authority on the violence connection.

It's not always because of an enlightened awareness of animal rights, but because they now understand it's a precursor to other forms of aggression.

``They realize the time you spend responding to juveniles setting fire to dogs, or adults abusing animals, is time you're going to save at the other end.''

Early intervention is common sense, says Toronto community policing officer Alan Fujino. After attending the OSPCA's violence-prevention seminars this year, he's been working on a presentation for the Police Services Board that he hopes will result in officers being mandated to pay more attention to animal cruelty.

``The campaign against drinking and driving worked, so can this,'' he says.

``I've talked to some of our officers and they're starting to think in the right direction. If something's been done to an animal, what's being done to the humans in the family?''

That question was answered in part last year by an OSPCA survey of women forced to seek refuge from violent partners in temporary shelters. It found that 61 per cent had had pets hurt or killed by their partners. Alarmingly, 48 per cent said fear for a pet's well-being had delayed their escape. (Because women's shelters don't take pets, the society now operates a pet-boarding program specifically for women in that situation.)

The survey findings came as no surprise to Lesley, a counsellor at Toronto's Interval House.

``Animal abuse is part of the continuum of power,'' she says flatly. ``The pet gets used as a form of control. The more a woman loves an animal, the more a man will go through it to get to her.''

Lenore Lukasik-Fosse, director of Martha House, a Hamilton shelter, has been hearing horrifying stories from women for years.

``A dog is kicked across the room, a cat is tortured, and the clear message to the woman and children is, `You're next.' Battered women are afraid their pets will be further harmed if they leave. And it happens.''

She tells of one woman who snuck home from the shelter to pick up some belongings and found her cat hanging dead from a noose. And another who'd been threatened by her husband that he'd kill the dog if she left. When she did and then returned, she found the dog dead. It had been poisoned, but she couldn't, of course, prove he'd done it.

A partner's abuse of an animal should be a warning bell to women to get themselves and their children out of the house. But it's usually a warning they're unable to act on.

``It's like the violence done against them,'' says Lukasik-Fosse. ``It grows slowly, insidiously. These women are isolated psychologically, they're incredibly trapped.''

The confluence of spouse battering, child abuse and animal cruelty was dramatically illustrated in a U.S. case earlier in the decade. A woman was acquitted of fatally shooting her husband after evidence that he had beaten her, terrorized their young children, and tortured and killed the family's pet rabbit.

The court was told the man had hung the rabbit in the garage and summoned his wife. When she came with her infant son on her shoulder, he began skinning the animal alive. Then he held the boy next to the screaming rabbit and said, ``See how easy it would be?''

The emotional impact on children of witnessing abuse can be far-reaching and unpredictable. It can psychologically devastate a youngster for whom a pet is the only source of comfort. Conversely, it can result in imitation.

And getting away with that, wrote anthropologist Margaret Mead in 1964, is ``one of the most dangerous things that can happen to a child.''

One unsettling U.S. study of 2- to 12-year-olds who'd been sexually abused found that 35 per cent of the boys and 27 per cent of the girls had been caught mistreating animals. In a parallel study of non-abused children, the rates dropped to 5 and 3 per cent respectively.

At a certain stage, before a child has learned empathy for an animal's pain, it is normal to experiment, maybe by pulling a kitten's tail, says Nancy Dale of the CAS.

``In most families, that's where parents step in and correct the behaviour. But in a dysfunctional family, that behaviour is seen as appropriate - is even encouraged.''

Indeed, one American survey of battered mothers in women's shelters found that a third of them reported their children had hurt or killed an animal, in one instance by pouring lighter fluid on a kitten and igniting it.

In the U.S., 13 states allow judges to order psychiatric counselling for animal abusers; in Nevada, if the abuser is a child, it's mandatory. The U.S. Humane Society's Deborah Duel thinks more jurisdictions should consider taking that approach, particularly with youngsters, because juvenile cases of animal cruelty are on the rise.

``The kids are getting younger,'' she says, ``and more girls are starting to do it.''

Canadian authorities say the number of cruelty reports made by the public has risen exponentially in the '90s. And they suspect the actual incidence - and level of cruelty - has increased along with it.

That's why the key now is to get the court to consistently enforce Ottawa's new law, says Frances Rodenburg, executive director of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, the organization that led the 17-year fight for tougher penalties.

She's working on an information manual that will demonstrate to the judges and crown attorneys that animal abuse, though abhorrent in itself, isn't just about animals.

But increased penalties are only part of the answer, she says. There should be a national awareness campaign, more community coalitions like the OSPCA's pioneering efforts, more judges ordering psychological counselling for abusers, and preventative education in schools.

``The earlier you can get to children,'' she says, ``the better.''

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