The Graduation Myth: A Closer Look at Animal Cruelty and Human Violence


Emaciated Pit Bull puppies rescued in 2010 / PHOTO by Brian Adams


The Shift
I wanted a career change. Publicizing small hi-tech companies for the past two years at a PR agency in Boston had lost its luster long ago. It was time to take a chance.

I debated future careers for weeks. Should I stay in PR or go back to reporting? Is there an entirely new career out there waiting for me?

I soon found my answer when my wife came home from a career fair and told me about a local animal welfare organization. I grew up surrounded by animals on a small, non-working farm and connected with our pets, understanding their motivations. The position was paid hourly in exchange for helping find owners for homeless pets. I hadn’t worked for hourly wages since my days in retail but I knew this was the job for me from the feeling in my chest.

During the interview process I was told about a recent opening in the Marketing department for a salaried PR Manager. I jumped at the chance and landed the job. I was warned about the hardships I would encounter – neglected and abused animals on a daily basis. I thought I could improve things, care for the unwanted, recuperate the injured, and generally become a young St. Francis with my first press release.

I witnessed the results of countless acts of animal cruelty during my nearly six years at the second oldest animal welfare organization in America. I grew the PR Manager role during this time to become head of Media and Community Relations and as the lead spokesman for the Massachusetts SPCA, I frequently provided comment on horrific cases that required extensive research on my part.

Story Gathering
My daily rounds of the organization could take hours. I usually began by touring one of the largest and most advanced veterinary hospitals in the world. During my time there, the nonprofit employed nearly 100 veterinarians in specialties including surgery, neurology, pain management, ophthalmology, and gene therapy. This team treated more than 50,000 animals annually and I spent most of my time in the Emergency Room looking for “miracle cases” of recovery.

I was an embedded reporter clicking away on my digital camera and scribbling notes. I interviewed colleagues, probing further than a member of the media would be allowed because of our shared mission. These Q&A’s helped me understand as much about the medicine as the people in the white coats. Every day was a study on human behavior.

About one third of the building housed an adoption center. When I came aboard in 2006, the MSPCA operated seven adoption centers, four after the recession hit in 2008. We also lost 2 hospitals when $11M+ of our endowment vanished. The human casualties were the hardest to bear.

Walking by the cages and kennels I viewed the animals in our care, searching for a story as strongly as they sniffed out a new home. I swung by the morgue, a smell I never got used to, as I made my way to the stairs and up to the fourth floor where I caught up with the head of our Advocacy department. After discussing legislation I crossed the hallway to the Law Enforcement offices.

The Officers
The structure of the MSPCA provided direct contact with animals that survived abuse and those unfortunate souls who died through neglect or extreme brutality. The nonprofit employed a handful of specially trained state police officers, charged solely with investigating allegations of animal cruelty. When describing them to the media I frequently mentioned that they were armed officers to ensure that it was understood that these were not dogcatchers.

Each year these officers would investigate nearly 3,000 allegations of animal cruelty and inspect tens of thousands of animals. It’s important to note that that these figures were only for our officers and did not include the many cases that were investigated by local and state law enforcement as well.

Inside I would chat with the dispatcher, one of any number of officers traveling through Boston or visiting the city for a court date, the affable Deputy Director, and eventually the Director. We would make small talk before winding our way to the cases that were under investigation. To gain a better perspective on the crimes being discussed I would view photos, video, and statements. This was necessary given the bombardment of questions that made their way from the newsrooms to my desk.

Perspective and Fatigue
Over the years I went out on some calls, helped rescue a few of the abused, participated in necropsies, viewed countless depictions of violence towards animals, and met the survivors, human and animal. In all I spent more than five years watching over a constant flow of graphic animal cruelty.

I frequently recounted one story to the press involving a dog and a chainsaw. That one wasn’t even that bad but it got the point across. Neglect was the most difficult to convey unless you had pictures. The barbarity of withholding care or nourishment, among other necessities, degraded one’s spirit. The cruelty was in the time it took to turn a healthy dog into skin and bones or to allow a cat’s sores to fester until maggots made homes under the fur.

From the many stories that stay with me I was most horrified by a German Shepherd whose “elbows” had been allowed to deteriorate. The bones pushed through the skin due to lack of muscle and time spent on a hard floor. When we hoisted the poor dog from our refrigeration unit for examination and opened the body bag, the exposed joints were as white and dry as a turkey carcass forgotten after a Thanksgiving meal.

Your perspective changes when you deal with severe cruelty on a regular basis. In our orientation we were told about compassion fatigue. We were told that we would either burn out in two years or become “lifers”. A friend once told me that many of us were emotionally spent after the first few weeks and only toughed it out given our empathy for the animals. You learn that empathy is a double-edged sword fairly quickly.

The Study
Members of the press possessed private notions of animal cruelty, commonly fueled by Hollywood’s depiction of serial killers with a penchant for torturing animals from a young age. The more severe cases that went public invited speculation of having stopped future Dahmers or Bundys. That’s when I started promoting the study.

The study had not been featured in the press for years so I dusted it off and gave it a read. It was extensive to say the least. The MSPCA partnered with Northeastern University to review the records of more than 80,000 animal cruelty complaints between 1975 and 1996. The cases focused mainly on men (97%) and individuals mainly under the age of 30 (56%).

“Beating, shooting, and stabbing were the most common methods of abuse. Adolescents were almost twice as likely as adults to beat their animal victims, and adults were almost twice as likely as adolescents to shoot animals.”

These statistics could catch he odd headline but I was after more. I needed to understand why people did what they did.

Two researchers searched for answers amongst the aftermath of violence. They interviewed inmates at federal penitentiaries and battered women in a shelter but left no closer to their goal. The question remained: What is the relationship between animal abuse and violence towards humans? The study soon focused on individuals convicted for acts of animal cruelty.

“The criminal records of 153 individuals prosecuted by the MSPCA between 1975 and 1986 for intentional physical cruelty to animals were tracked for 20 years – 10 years before the abuse and 10 years after. A control group was established of ‘next door neighbors,’ people of identical gender and age who lived in the same neighborhood at the same time as the abusers. The criminal history of control group members was compiled for the same 20-year time period.”

The results were staggering and changed the way we looked at the relationship between animal cruelty and violence against humans.

“Seventy percent of the people who committed violent crimes against animals also had criminal records for violent, property, drug, or disorder crimes. When compared to their next-door neighbors, people who abused animals were five times more likely to commit violent crimes against people, four times more likely to commit property crimes, and three times more likely to have a record for drug or disorderly conduct offenses.”

The findings also challenged a longstanding belief that animal cruelty was a gateway to committing human violence. The study stated:

“The hypothesis that people first commit acts of cruelty to animals and then ‘graduate’ to crimes against people was not supported by the findings of this study. More than half (59%) of the 106 animal abusers who committed other crimes committed those crimes prior to the animal offense.”

It was now clear that the flow of violence towards animals or other humans starts with either classification of victim. Years later I discovered that this was still news to the press while the animal welfare world also remained skeptical of the findings.

These were hard facts for many to swallow. They showed a disconnect with empathy that allowed humans to treat the lives of animals and people as the same. Therefore we pushed for similar laws. If the abusers would not distinguish in their acts then why should the courts?

Over the years, my colleagues strengthened the animal cruelty laws although they still remain weak in the eyes of many advocates. It is a difficult case to make when you look at the victims, weighing animal life against those of humans. This is a mistake and misses the point of the findings. The commonality lies in the abuser and behavior that allows an individual to harm animals as easily as humans.

As the study concludes:

“…this research should serve as a wake-up call for parents, teachers, social service providers, law enforcement, the judiciary, veterinarians—indeed, for all of us—that cruelty to animals is a warning sign that deserves our attention and demands intervention.”


Emaciated Pit Bull puppies rescued in 2010 / PHOTO by Brian Adams

Read “Cruelty to Animals and Other Crimes” in its entirety. If you wish to make a difference please contact your local animal welfare organization or reach out to your legislative representative.

More information regarding the Pit Bull puppies pictured above can be found here.

Related post: Cheering for Vick


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