The parallel dynamics of abuse and the torturing of animals

Oszd meg!

Almost all rapists and abusers started out by torturing animals, but this is not the only reason why society should take cruelty to animals seriously. dr. Flóris Roland Fellegi-Balta, veterinarian and women’s rights activist, has researched the connection between the two phenomena and has written a series of articles for, of which this is the second one. 

Our starting point will be the experiences survivors of abuse and witnesses of animal torture shared with me during my research. I have no space here to go into details about the nature of violence against women and children, but I just want to start by saying that violence – by which I will always mean abuse against humans – must be understood on the basis of power relations. The perpetrator commits physical or sexual violence in order to control the victim and establish or maintain their own power over them. The torturing of animals, as we shall see, functions similarly and is connected to violence in several ways. The most obvious and common connection, which I discussed in part 1, is that the two forms of abuse are often parallel, or one follows the other. But whence is this connection? Animals are weaker than humans and depend on them. Do perpetrators act out their superiority on them, just like with child abuse?

First let us hear from one of my interviewees. “My story is set in a small village in southeast Hungary. My ex-partner, the father of my son, was an abuser: he bullied and harassed me if I stayed out longer than agreed, he didn’t let me stay in touch with my friends, he scheduled my time. Officially he was servicing electrical appliances, but his real income came from breeding dogs illegally and selling them to Italy. He was unspeakably cruel to animals. I have seen him smash puppies against the wall several times. If he couldn’t profit from an animal, he killed it with cruel methods. He had an air gun, he would shoot with it at dogs or cats straying into our garden, who became paralyzed as a result. With this, he wanted to demonstrate to us how good he is with guns. We were afraid. I left him a few years ago, but since then he has been blackmailing me through my son, as he got custody of him. As far as I know, he still breeds and tortures animals. I don’t know how I could stand up against him: I have no ideas and no time or energy, partly because he has started several lawsuits against me since our break-up, and that has literally eaten up all my money. I think what motivates him is exploiting everyone for his own profit.”

My interviewee’s description sheds shockingly clear light on the nature of violence and also on how animal abuse connects to it; it is almost a test case exemplifying all the connections.  First, let us see the dynamics of violence. We can see the role of control, which proves that the perpetrator is motivated by a will to power; one common means to achieve this is isolating the victim from everyone who could help her. This phenomenon can in itself be regarded as an early, “softer” form of violence: a person doing this is likely to proceed on the violence scale and exhibiting more and more abusive behavior, if they get the chance. The perpetrator clashes with the law on several fronts, with one crime “covering” for the other; an animal torturer’s income from animal breeding is obviously illegal. We also see his cruelty to animals and assume that smashing puppies against the wall and shooting with an air gun are just some of its manifestations. His motivation is financial profit, which matches his will to power, and this motivates both animal abuse and control over his partner. But this is not the only rationale for his actions; demonstrating his ability to shoot and aim carries the clear message “if I can do this to animals, don’t be so sure I won’t do it to you”. The message serves its purpose, the victim and her son are afraid. The reason they don’t report the animal abuse is that there is a lack of obvious, easily accessible legal instruments – and this is often the reason why the abuse of family members goes unpunished as well.

I would also like to call attention to a frequent phenomenon, the so-called procedural abuse: the perpetrator starts countless legal procedures against the victim, who thus becomes the defendant, or even the accused in several lawsuits. It is the victim who is impeached, her life force, energy and money are eaten up by these procedures, so she has no way to achieve the impeachment of the perpetrator.

From the typology of animal abuse connected to domestic violence (see below), this case illustrates two types: demonstrating one’s own power by abusing animals (shooting with the air gun) and general abuse against the weaker, usually for personal profit.

I have seen many examples of the third, especially upsetting type in a survey in which I asked respondents to describe the attitude towards animals of the abuser living in their household, and of cases of animal abuse if any (I must add that nobody reported a positive attitude of the perpetrator to animals, though they had the opportunity to do so). Some examples:

“He regularly approached his partner and their underage daughter violently, threatened them, hit and kicked their pets, while never hurt his own pets.”

“When I was a child, he often beat me and my mother and also used psychic terror, undermining our self-esteem. He hanged my mother’s dog, abused and tormented by dog, he even poisoned some of them.”

“He would strangle, beat and kick all members of the family. He forbade us to bathe or eat. (…) He hanged the dog in the yard, left it hanging there for days and forced the child to look at the body.”

The common thread in these cases is that the perpetrator uses pets as a means to abuse people. One way to do it is emotional abuse by torturing the pet; in these cases, the perpetrator does not harm their own pets but inflicts horrible torture on the victim’s pets. The case of the dog hanged in the yard is somewhat different: it does not only rely on the emotional attachment to the animal but also with the horror of abuse; we might even interpret it as an example of earlier demonstrative, intimidating behavior.

To sum it up: the person abusing humans uses animal abuse to

  1. demonstrate that they might, at a certain moment, perform abuse against a human;
  2. abuse everyone weaker than themselves, and
  3. emotionally abuse and blackmail people around them through torturing animals.

In my research I have found types 2 and 3 much more common than type 1. The way I explain it is that abusers usually make open, not veiled threats: they clearly tell their victim what to expect.  Lethal cases of domestic abuse are almost always preceded by open death threats. Just remember the perpetrator who threw his baby down from the balcony: he had expressly announced what he was preparing to do, and had the authorities taken him seriously, that child would still be alive.

When it comes to potential solutions, we see even more connections between animal torture and violence against people, partly because the two go together and partly because their motivations are similar. Therefore, it is easy to guess that the systemic problems hindering their elimination are also similar in many respects. Let us see some experiences.

Excerpt from an interview: “I never got to the law enforcement authorities because my family didn’t support me, so I decided not to report the crime. I have observed that people who abuse others emotionally or physically usually use psychological terror before physical abuse, and such a person usually also harms animals, or at least neglects them and does not satisfy their needs. In my family there is recurring abuse, the family itself is sick. Violence repeats itself, the way we treat each other, and there is no reaction. I am the only one who tried to react, and it is hard to talk about it because I should start with my grandparents. When my sister’s husband abused me, I tried to ask my relatives for help, but they didn’t help, I had nowhere to go. Later my sister’s husband also abused their child and neglected the child from the start. I remember him threatening me that he would wring my cat’s neck. I had serious reason to be afraid of that, this is why I didn’t report him. I think if any of my relatives had told me, ‘come here with your cats’, I would have reported, especially when the physical abuse had already left marks.”

What we see here is the huge latency which is typical of animal torture – and also domestic violence – which is caused by the fact that most cases do not even get to court. Criminal procedures have a set scenario, classically divided into three stages: investigation, court procedure and law enforcement. We should imagine these as levels of a pyramid: each build on the previous one, but only part of the cases in one stage moves on to the next. However, in most cases of domestic violence and animal abuse there is not even an investigation, and even if there is, cases drop out throughout the process: even cases where the police and the prosecution has indeed conducted an investigation do not all get into court. Whether cases which do get to court get a justified sentence is a matter of opinion. I personally believe that in cases of both domestic violence and animal abuse harsher punishments should be given for more deterring power.

So, the cases do not get to court or even, as my interviewee phrased it, to the “law enforcement authorities” (that is, the police). The causes are similar in the two types of crime: the victim does not get enough support. Neither the family and the social environment, nor the authorities take these acts seriously enough. The victim does see that what has happened to them warrants intervention by the authorities, but gives up the plans to make a report: who would go through such an ordeal without support, without being taken seriously? We can again observe the use of threats to the animals as a form of abuse (threatening to wring the cat’s neck).

It is also a common situation that animal torture and violence go unresolved because it is problematic to place the animal somewhere. A well-known Danish research has found that victims of domestic violence who have pets leave the abusive relationship one year later on the average than those who do not. This is a shocking number, if we consider that in Hungary, at least 3 women are killed monthly by their husbands, life partners or casual lovers. What is more, these statistics include all victims with pets, not only those who have no place to put them or whose pets are also abused. We can thus say that keeping pets and the difficulty of placing them pose a serious, even deadly risk to pet-owning victims. Therefore, it is essential that a possibility for safely placing the pets of abusive victim be found in Hungary, so that they could have time to settle their situation and when that is solved, they can take back the animal. The fact that many apartment owners do not let tenants keep pets does not help the situation either.

So far, I have mostly outlined the problems, but I would like to end on a positive note: the connections between domestic violence and animal torture also give us hope. Partly because recognizing the connections gives us the opportunity to more efficiently treat the problem. Also, the presence of animals in our lives has enormous healing potential. The parallel of the two problems pervades all our human nature: the motivations, the forms of abuse and the structural problems hindering solutions are similar, and also there are probably connections between the emotional harm and the ways to heal it. Our relationship to the defenseless shows our attitude to our own defenselessness, and by looking after animals we can heal the vulnerable part in ourselves. I will illustrate this with a final quote from a 3-hour interview by a person who was gravely sexually abused as a child by an adult also abusing animals. For my interviewee, saving animals has become a way to process the trauma.

“Regularly feeding needy, starving, battered animals, taming extremely fearful dogs was the ground to develop my social skills. I learnt very deeply how to approach a scared, hungry animal, waiting every day for them to let me closer and closer, until finally there could be a touch and a grateful wagging of the tail.  (…)

On a very cold January day I found a pointer-sized dog by the road. It was almost in a catatonic state due to the shock, the cold and the pain. Those days it was -10 Celsius by day and -17 by night, so I had to make up my mind fast: the injured dog would not have survived this lying by the road. I wrapped it in a blanket and took it home, it didn’t even resist. The process lasted over a month, with the help of animal rescuer contacts. The dog’s pelvic bone and hip joint were broken in several places, so they had to truncate a hip bone to save the leg of the young and strong animal. Fortunately, as soon as it healed, I could find someone to adopt it, so it had a happy life.

There have been other cases when I found myself in the process of placing a dog. Now I know that these clearly, unconsciously served to mediate my own pain and suffering I had suppressed. After my children were born, I left this track for a while, performing my tasks as a parent takes up all my energy.  (…)

Therefore, I think that the tasks of animal rescue and animal protection are not to be smiled at but are indeed necessary and mediate the effects on both sides. I can only speak for myself, but I would like to live in a society where women, children, people with disabilities, those who cannot speak – and I could go on and on – could live as full human beings, in a community where people are sensitive to each other’s needs. In a community where they can give and receive as well.”

(translation: Rita Béres-Deák)