It was rather disheartening to learn that 22 U.S. senators voted against renewal of the Violence Against Women Act. The logic of their position flows from a contention that VAWA constitutes an overreach by the federal government, and that it represents a “feminist” attack on family values. There’s no small irony in the fact that VAWA seeks to protect women, who themselves have been literally… physically… emotionally attacked, not just philosophically challenged.
One way we as a nation can begin to address violence against women is through greater study of the issues and the circumstances that promote it. Innumerable studies substantiate the fact that violence in the home often claims multiple victims. Not only are adult spouses and partners victimized, but so too are children and pets.
Without diminishing the harm to the human victims, the plight of animal victims merits a lot more consideration than it is typically given. We need not even wander down the entirely legitimate and valid cause of animal rights. Rather, we can stay entirely ethnocentric and discuss how violence against pets is linked to inter-human violence.
At least a dozen peer-reviewed studies since 1998 have assessed the co-occurrence of partner violence and animal cruelty by asking women in domestic violence shelters about their experiences with animal abuse. Between 46 percent and 71 percent of these women reported a male abuser had threatened, harmed, or killed their pet.
In a 2007 study, University of Denver researchers, led by Prof. Frank Ascione, compared the reports of women in domestic violence shelters with non-abused women. His team found that women in shelters were 11 times more likely to report that their partner had hurt or killed a pet (54 percent vs. 5 percent) and four times more likely to indicate that their partner had threatened a pet (52.5 percent vs. 12.5 percent) than the comparison group.
While it is well-established that correlation does not imply causality, the fact that animal abuse and human abuse appear strongly correlated suggests that the study of the former might help us get command of the latter. In other words, while we may not be able to say that people who hurt animals will always go on to hurt people, there appears to be a very strong co-occurrence.
As researchers Sarah DeGrue and David DiLillo clarify:, “The results suggest that animal abuse may prove a more reliable marker for other forms of family violence than vice versa. For instance, although about 60 percent of individuals who witnessed or perpetrated animal abuse also experienced family violence, only about 30 percent of family violence victims had experienced animal cruelty.”
All of this makes me think about conditions in my hometown. We have a horrible problem with interpersonal violence. A local murder rate in excess of seven times the national average sums it up pretty succinctly. We also have an epidemic of animal neglect and cruelty. Hardly a neighborhood in the city doesn’t have an illegally chained dog, or strays or animals kept without food, water or shelter. As bad as people have it here, animals appear to have it much worse.
If you dare to notice or say anything about it, you’re branded as being “anti-human” or “caring more about dogs than people.” One local magistrate even had the temerity to suggest that the rampant wave of animal abuse was just a cultural prerogative.
In our great rush to take care of people “first,” the animals haven’t stood a chance. Ironically enough, — as the above-referenced research shows, the furry voiceless victims are actually very reliable indicators of people hurting one another.
A lot of folks around here like to quote scripture instead of actually formulating or enforcing just, moral and ethical public policy. It’s not that one can’t connect to the other, it’s that they often fail to do so.
In the spirit of laying a few breadcrumbs that these righteous political bystanders might understand, I’ll offer this — Psalm 82:3, “Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy.”
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Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org