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Dogs Are People Too

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It's a bumper sticker, a t-shirt, a credo. We dog (cat, parrot, ferret) owners can be downright passionate about our pets, to the point of anthropomorphizing them. And being rendered ill and outraged at the abuse of an animal, any animal.

Of course, not everyone feels the same about damage done to pets. Recall the ghastly video back in January, the one that shows Chris Grant repeatedly kicking his girlfriend's small dog in that elevator in New York. Most viewers leaned toward blunt-instrument assault or the vivisection of Mr. Grant as a suitable response.

But a handful reacted with a yawn. And some saw it as impossible to be sickened both by the stabbing death of nine-year-old Anthony Maldonado (the incident that led the police to that elevator security footage in the first place) and the actions of a man who would kick a trusting animal. One viewer sneered at those who feel "chihuahuas are more important than children." Another blasted dim tools like me: "How are you going to compare a dog with a person! You have got to be kidding me!"

I refer those with a laidback attitude toward animal abuse, or who draw invidious distinctions between the suffering of two-legged and four-legged creatures, to an article in this week's New York Times Magazine by Charles Siebert entitled, "The Animal-Cruelty Syndrome."

Siebert cites a study in which, over a 10-year period, "6-to-12-year-old children who were described as being cruel to animals were more than twice as likely as other children in the study to be reported to juvenile authorities for a violent offense."

Randall Lockwood, A.S.P.C.A.'s senior vice president for forensic sciences and anti-cruelty projects, told Siebert of work he had done in the early eighties. Lockwood was part of a team of investigators examining middle-class American households with a history of child abuse. "We discovered that in homes where there was domestic violence or physical abuse of children, the incidence of animal cruelty was close to 90 percent," Lockwood said.

There isn't a cop in the country who hasn't seen it on a "DV" call: the beloved family kitten or puppy thrown against a wall, a precursor to the violence about to be visited on a human victim, most often an estranged intimate partner or a child.

I wasn't going to view it, that January video. Since leaving police work in 2000, I'd avoided media images of people brutalizing sentient creatures, from spouses to kids to family pets. I'd seen enough as a cop. Plus, I'm a dog lover. I knew what it would do to me. But, for some reason, I had to watch this one. I'm not sure why, maybe it had to do with bearing witness. I watched it twice, three times, four times, wincing and weeping throughout.

For me, it was the image of the dog's behavior that remains most indelible. I saw that cute, prancing little fellow follow Grant's yank on the leash into the elevator, to be met by the first of six kicks to the ribs. I saw the dog lying in the corner, cowering, glancing about as if looking for escape. I watched in horror as "Chuvi-Duvi" took the bait and responded to Grant's false promises of affection, only to be kicked again and again -- including that singular moment when Grant actually pet the dog while simultaneously giving him a boot to the ribcage.

(Update: In May, Grant pleaded guilty to animal cruelty and was sentenced to three months in jail.)

Anyone who doesn't get the connection between animal cruelty and all other forms of violence, especially spousal assault and child abuse, needs to read the Times Magazine piece and connect the dots.

As Siebert writes, "...children [who witness animal cruelty in the home] are... often driven to suppress their own feelings of kindness and tenderness toward a pet because they can't bear the pain caused by their own empathy for the abused animal." In short, such kids become "abuse reactive," as they are taught physical violence as a model of conflict resolution.

According to Siebert, "... one of the most promising methods for healing those whose empathetic pathways have been stunted by things like repeated exposure to animal cruelty is, poetically enough, having such victims work with animals."

Okay, so dogs aren't people. But don't they have much to teach us?

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