Animal Cruelty and Domestic Violence: Same Story, Different Chapter

11/03/2015 04:00 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2016
slim and hungry street dog
slim and hungry street dog

May 14, 2011, Colorado: A Fort Collins man is facing charges after police say he hit his girlfriend and then threw a pet ferret against a wall, killing it.

May 24, 2011, Florida: A 34-year-old Winter Haven man was arrested after he killed three baby rabbits following a fight with his wife. " ...He took the cardboard box into the bathroom and killed the baby rabbits by twisting them...," according to Jamie Brown, Winter Haven Police spokesperson. Reginald Owen Sear, Jr., 34, was charged with three counts of animal cruelty and two counts of child abuse. Sear had two other arrests in Polk County for domestic violence battery charges in 2002 and 2004.

June 14, 2011, New York: Investigators in the Monroe County District Attorney's Office are investigating an apparent domestic violence case against Luis Gonzalez, 24, of Clay Street in Rochester. Gonzalez reportedly broke down the front and back doors to an apartment trying to make contact with his ex-girlfriend, who told police that she saw Gonzalez kick the eight-week kitten with his shoes on and watched the kitten striking the wall nearly as high as the ceiling before it fell to the ground motionless.

July 16, 2011: Michigan: A Pinconning Township man is facing potential prison time for reportedly killing his ex-girlfriend's fish. Prosecutors allege that after assaulting his girlfriend, John A. Moore, 45, took out his anger by pouring bleach in her fish tank, killing the fish therein.

August 11, 2011: Maine: A Pittson man accused of threatening his wife and stabbing her dog has entered guilty pleas to two charges related to this incident.

Spanning just three months, these are just half of the reports from the Pet-Abuse.com database of incidents involving animal cruelty and domestic violence. According to the Humane Society of the United States, 13 percent of all reported cases of intentional animal abuse involved domestic violence. Because of the large overlap between these two types of abuse, there has been more awareness of how they interconnect.

One survey of pet-owning battered women found that 75 percent reported at least one incident of pet abuse by their abusive partner in the past year. Another investigation found that 48 percent of the battered women surveyed said that pet abuse by their abuser had occurred 'often' during an incident of abuse that was aimed at them during the past year, while 30 percent said it occurred 'almost always.' A third survey in Wisconsin found that 68 percent of abused women reported pet or livestock abuse by their partner, and that 75 percent of these incidents had occurred in front of their children.

Are these deliberate acts of cruelty or is the protagonist just caught in a stressful moment where he momentarily 'loses it'? Is he primarily punishing the pet or his partner? There appear to be two common scenarios; one where animal cruelty is used as a terror tactic to deter the victim from taking certain actions, such as ending the relationship or for simply arguing, and another where the violence serves to punish the victim for actions she has already taken. Often animal abuse serves both as deterrent and punishment.

One such case a college student told her abusive boyfriend that she planned to leave him. The next day she came home to find her cat had been strangled and left on her doorstep. Another abuser serially killed five of his wife's kittens during a period when she was talking of leaving him.

It is common for abusers to attack their victim's loved pets during the onset or the aftermath of incidents of domestic violence. In these cases, the abuser seems to be sending the message, 'See what you make me do?' But contrary to his claim that he 'lost control', or 'was provoked,' the abuser is actually attempting to exert control by choosing behavior that is designed to frighten, terrorize, or punish his partner. As one abuser, who had left his wife with two black eyes, once related when I asked if he had punched his wife, "No I would never hit her like a man!" If in fact, he really 'lost control', as he claimed, he would have been able to consistently choose his violent behavior, or to seek credit for slapping rather than punching his partner. One victim told me, "It's always my cat that gets kicked, never his."

The underlying logic of such violence is to punish his partner for her defiance by telling her, "That could have been you," or "You're next," or by proclaiming, "See what happens when you make me mad?" In these cases, pets are used as props for reinforcing the abuser's rules, whether these are explicit or implied. It is no accident that the abuser is targeting his partner's and/or his children's cherished pets. Injuring or killing a pet represents a step-up from damaging or destroying the victim's inanimate property.

It is a tried and true formula in horror films: the killing of an animal, portrayed for example in flash images of a decapitated cat, as a devise to ramp up the terror level and spell impending doom for the targeted person or persons. Killing animals also serves to advertise the assailant's deadly intentions. For this reason, animal abuse is a known risk factor for serious and potentially lethal cases of domestic violence. In these cases, the potential killer of an intimate partner has reinforced his threat by demonstrating his ability to kill another sentient being.

Increasing awareness about the connections between animal abuse and domestic violence abuse has spurred changes for agencies charged with helping human as well as animal victims. Domestic violence programs together with animal protection agencies have established programs for the safekeeping of animals for pet owners in abusive relationships. The Humane Society maintains a national directory for these Safe Havens for Animals programs.

Agencies charged with investigating animal cruelty are now being trained to look for and document signs of family violence. Meanwhile, laws in many states have been amended to include pets and animals on court protective orders. Through 2013, 23 states plus Puerto Rico and Washington DC had enacted such legislation, according to the National Link Coalition. All 50 states now have felony laws for serious acts of animal cruelty. A state-by-state guide to these laws is maintained by ASPCA. Animal cruelty not only provides an early warning to domestic violence but is also a known gateway indicator to many other kinds of violence.

Animal cruelty often reveals a contempt for life in general.