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Animal Cruelty and Interpersonal Violence: Making the Connection

By Claire Ponder Selib, National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA) Deputy Director, National Advocacy Leadership Center (NALC), NOVA Victim Assistance Academy (NVAA), and NOVA Campus Advocacy Training (NCAT)

October 15, 2018

On February 14, 2018, the nation joined the Parkland, Florida community in expressing outrage, grief, and outpourings of support for the 17 victims, survivors, and loved ones affected by the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In the aftermath of this horrific act of violence, we learned more about the 19-year old shooter, Nikolas Cruz, and the many “red flags” that were missed. Among the warning signs identified, a history of cruelty toward animals was described by several witnesses. In making this connection, Cruz joins a long line of perpetrators—both high profile killers and “every day” perpetrators of interpersonal violence—whom threaten, harm or kill animals in addition to human victims.

Through a growing body of research, we now know that animal cruelty can be an indicator—or red flag—for other forms of interpersonal violence, including domestic violence, child abuse and elder abuse. All too often, perpetrators manipulate the strong bond that many pet owners have with their animals, and pets are threatened, hurt or killed as a method of control and a form of emotional abuse. In cases of domestic violence, multiple studies show that 18-48% of battered women delay leaving abusive situations out of fear for their pets’ safety. Similarly, among older adults, animal abuse and neglect may be a warning sign of elder abuse, or a red flag for self-neglect, animal hoarding or other behavioral problems. In a 2000 study, 35% of adult protective service caseworkers reported their clients talked about pets being threatened, injured, killed or denied care. Furthermore, in a 2003 survey, 92% of adult protective service caseworkers found animal neglect co-existing with clients who were unable to care for themselves, and 75% of clients reporting concern for their pets’ welfare affected their decision on accepting intervention or other services.

During October’s National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, victim advocates, adult protective service caseworkers, animal control officers, and other first responders have a unique opportunity to raise awareness and develop multidisciplinary teams to prevent and respond to all forms of violence. Many communities across the country have already developed model programs involving interagency cross-training; inclusion of animal care and control representatives on family violence task forces; updating intake forms and risk/lethality assessments to include questions on the presence of pets in the home and treatment of animals; and establishment of safe havens to temporarily house pets when domestic violence victims flee abusive homes. Additionally, state animal cruelty laws have–and continue to be– strengthened as the link is recognized, and many states now allow pets to be included in domestic violence protective orders and/or require professionals in certain disciplines to report suspected animal cruelty. For communities interested in starting a program, the National Link Coalition serves as the National Resource Center on The Link between Animal Abuse and Human Violence, and provides training and technical assistance. As we kick-off DVAM, it is on all of us to collaborate to end all forms of family violence.

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