Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Unrecognized American Epidemic: Animal Cruelty, Part I: Why the ASPCA’s mission grows more urgent on a daily basis

Here in the Northern Hemisphere, we have moved from summer into fall, in preparation for winter’s inevitable onset. More and more prevalent in the media are stories about this year’s H1N1 swine flue season and its impact on various population components. This, however, is not about this potential epidemic. Rather, it is about a much longer-running American epidemic whose effects are more insidious, and in the long-run more deadly. This is the epidemic of acts of animal cruelty in all 50 states.

This issue came back into my attention this week via an e-mail from the valuable activism organization, In this e-mail they told all I needed to know about the latest outrage that surfaced in the news this past Tuesday. The horror tale broke my heart, and has left me feeling sad ever since. In the e-mail, the lead drew on a news story that appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News about a six week old brown tabby kitten dubbed “Cuddles.”

In the Philadelphia suburb of Chester last week, a group of men attacked the kitten, first by stoning it, then by pouring lighter fluid on it, and igniting it. Cuddles’ screams of agony drew the attention of Animal Control officers, who tried to rescue her.

When one of the Animal Control officers picked her up, and tried to hug him. In the midst of her unimaginable agony, she recognized a difference between the men who tormented her, and the heroes who tried to save her. All she wanted was a little love, a little friendly attention. For that she was tortured . . . and lost her life.

This is not the first incidence of animal cruelty in the Philadelphia area this year. Philadelphia is no worse (or no better) than any other part of the country. Nor is its urban nature necessarily making it more abusive toward animals. Rural parts of the country, on a per capita basis, are even more abusive toward animals, especially when the abusive practices of the livestock, poultry and swine industries are factored in.

A number of years ago the jack rabbit population in eastern Idaho mushroomed to problematical levers. During the winter the rabbits angered and frustrated ranchers by eating the winter forage their cattle herds partially depended on for food. Then, after stripping the land of forage, the rabbits literally moved into haystacks, further depleting winter food stocks intended for their livestock.

After considering a variety of responses, some rather expensive, the ranchers and state officials came up with a cheap solution, dubbed Rabbit Baseball. On a specified Saturday, everyone (teenagers and children as well) interested in participating gathered in a staging area and then set out across the desert to club to death as many rabbits as they could using whatever weapon at their disposal. Some participants actually did try to play rudimentary games of baseball, using (presumably) dazed, but still alive rabbits in place of baseballs. All of these actions occurred with the approval of the State of Idaho.

As a nation, why should we care about animal cruelty? After all, some would argue, animals aren’t human because they don’t have eternal souls. When they die, that’s it for them, unlike us. Not so fast.

One very pertinent reason for caring is the clear link between childhood animal cruelty for personal enjoyment and later homicidal behavior toward human beings. Indeed, Ted Bundy, David Berkowitz and Jeffrey Dahmer all tortured or killed animals as children. Dahmer, as an example, moved from dismembering animals as a child to dismembering humans as an adult.

While it is true that many childhood animal abusers do not go on to become serials killers, still this behavior needs to be recognized as a warning of deeper psychological problems in the youth. In 2002 the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law reported that "A history of animal cruelty during childhood was significantly associated with APD [Antisocial Personality Disorder], antisocial personality traits, and polysubstance abuse. Mental retardation, psychotic disorders, and alcohol abuse showed no such association." (J Am Acad Psychiatry Law 30:257?65, 2002)

The United States is known worldwide for its extremely high violence levels in society. Including deaths from all causes, at least 30,000 people die from firearm wounds. Thus, in two years firearms kill more people in the US than died during the entire twelve year Vietnam War. This is simply unacceptable and should be seen as unsustainable if American civilization is to survive over the long term.

Mahatma Ghandi made the connection virtually every American ignores: "the greatness of a nation, and its moral progress is measured by the way its animals are treated." When viewed through this examining lens, it Is easy to see that the United States clearly is deficient in terms of its moral growth and maturation. All too often how adults treat animals mirrors how they treat children and vulnerable adults. Given that animals (especially dogs) are described as having the intelligence level of a very young child, this connection does make sense. Besides, just as young children are vulnerable, incapable of adult understanding and reasoning hence need the protection of adults, so too do domesticated animals.

With animal cruelty already at epidemic levels in the United States, and on the rise in terms of frequency of incidents occurring, should we be worried? Absolutely. There is no reliable way (that I am aware of) to determine the number of criminal acts against humans that are first practiced, and perfected, on animals. However, it is a slippery, rather steep slope between abusing an animal, abusing a child, and abusing other adults. Similarly, the slope is steep between believing it is ok to kill “dumb” animals because they aren’t behaving in the “right” way and believing it is ok to kill “dumb” humans because they aren’t conforming to the “right” expectations.

It is time for those Americans capable of caring about anything other than their own back account balance and forcing their code of morality on everyone else to step up, speak up and demand significant improvements in three things. First, state and local animal cruelty laws need to be strengthened through tougher penalties that carry real consequences. Second, the ability of local prosecutors to routinely reduce felony violations to essentially meaningless misdemeanors needs to be barred by new statutory stipulations. Third, in most areas of the country, local law enforcement needs to be encouraged to make animal cruelty investigations a priority, not a “when we catch up on other cases, then, maybe . . .” issue. These changes will happen only when the caring citizenry bands together and demand these changes.

At the same time, worthwhile groups need to be better supported (in terms of both membership and financial contributions) so they, too, can be more active in bringing about these changes. Chief among these worthwhile organizations is the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or the ASPCA. This organization, which I am embarrassed to admit I am not yet involved with (but will be – soon) works tirelessly for the protection and compassionate treatment of all animals.

In more enlightened parts of the country (New York City in particular), in conjunction with their local animal shelter operation, ASPCA investigators are sworn law enforcement officers as well, and are authorized to arrest animal abusers on their own. This empowerment needs to spread nationwide. Over time this empowerment can spread to other parts of the country, but only as states modernize their laws and more concerned citizens support both the idea and the organization behind it.

One concluding question to be pondered: is there any real difference between a group of teenagers clubbing an innocent, loving animal to death and a similar group beating Gwen Araujo to death (because “no one would be that stupid”)? Is there any real difference between a guy clubbing a sweet, loving cat to death in order to “prove his virility” and a guy beating his talented, beautiful transsexual girlfriend senseless, then leaving her to die alone in order to “save face with his buds” as happened to Angie Zapata in 2008?

In Part II of this post, I will examine this issue of animal cruelty from a different angle by addressing the question of whether some animals have inner spirits (or souls) or not.

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