News | South Africa
There are many novel anecdotes to remember when observing human behaviour, one of which is: “You can tell a lot about a man by the way he treats his dog.”
And there may well be some truth to this.
In a country battling a never-ending war against gender-based violence (GBV), it is only natural for curiosity to prompt people to look out for “signs” their spouse may end up becoming the person they fear the most.
Could abusing animals establish a link to help authorities and women alike to find out just how dangerous potential future perpetrators of violence could be?
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Unfortunately, the answer is not as simple as drawing an instant connection, with a host of other factors needing to be considered first, said head of the gender justice programme at the University of the Witwatersrand, Sheena Swemmer.
Swemmer’s research into amending domestic violence laws to include protecting companion animals is likely the first of its kind in South Africa.
A dog rescued from a taxi hunt syndicate. Photo: NSPCA
She aims to prove that violence against one group of vulnerable individuals, such as women, children or pets, could result in abuse against the other.
This is not something that is proven overnight, however.
“What is important is there are links between abuse of animals and potential to be violent to other individuals too. But I do not think one act of aggression towards an animal is an indicator of mental illness or of escalated violence to follow.
“Instead, you would look at patterns of behaviour. In cases of repeated violence, one really needs to look at a series of events.”
And even this may not be enough to prove that animal abusers are looking to target humans next, she added. It does, however, provide a way to investigate potential violence against others.
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The National Council of SPCAs (NSPCA) Special Investigations Unit said although a number of variables come together to “create a violent perpetrator”, premeditated animal abuse has greater implications on individuals and society.
Several starving horses were found at the SA army base in Potchefstroom and 25 had to be euthanised. Picture: NSPCA
“Animal abuse is a symptom of a troubled society… and as a whole should be taken more seriously by all authorities.”
University of the Western Cape lecturer, clinical psychologist and chairperson of Pets as Therapy South Africa, Dr Leigh Adams Tucker, said context is everything when trying to predict future aggression after an act of animal abuse.
The link between violence and animal abuse is, however, increased when individuals find gratification through violent acts towards animals.
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Tucker said specific clinical diagnoses such as antisocial personality disorder and conduct disorder have been associated with “intentional violence towards animals”, which reflects a “broader personality structure” characterised by “a range of severe dysfunctional behaviours that violate the rights of people and non-human animals, alike”.
The dog from Chatsworth had a clamp through his back leg. He is recuperating at the vet. Picture: South Coast Sun.
But this does not mean that everyone suffering from mental illness abuses animals.
Swemmer refers to “the link”, an “intersection of violence in the home where women who are abused may see the perpetrator also abuse their children and companion animals”.
She reported that 85.4% of women in shelters said they encountered other female victims that spoke of abuse towards their companion animal.
And 63% of children accompanying their mother to a shelter mention the household’s father figure abusing their pet as well.
With domestic violence, animal abuse has appeared in up to 83.3% of cases.
Tucker said notorious violent criminals had been linked to the torture, killing and sexual abuse of animals, which she said provided an “opportunity to practice and rehearse deviant behaviours”.
“Animals are convenient targets as they are easy to confine, and do not have the language and means to advocate for their well-being.
“Through time and opportunity, it is possible that there may be an escalation of violence, in which the same deviant behaviours enacted on animals, may be enacted on humans.”
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The NSCPA said that in many instances animal abuse and violence against vulnerable members of society escalate together.
The SPCA in Bloemfontein investigated a case of animal cruelty ‘on a plot of abomination’ after the SPCA came across two dogs eating a third dog’s carcass. Photo: SPCA
In their experience, the sexual abuse of animals has been linked to perpetrators “who are more likely to be involved in other sexual crimes, as well as additional criminal activity”.
However, each case must be looked at while bearing in mind there are different kinds of animal abuse and different types of violent offenders with different factors contributing to their actions.
Tucker explained there was enough research and literature conducted internationally to know that animal cruelty should serve as a warning for the potential of other acts of violence.
“Repeated, intentional hurt inflicted on animals, without remorse, creates even more red flags.”
This is not always enough to prove whether animal abuse is enough to predict inevitable violent behaviour, however.
“We can see there is a connection between these two phenomena, but it is difficult to claim direct causality.”
Unidentified customers look at dogs in cages for sale at a street-side market in Shunde District of Foshan City, Guangdong Province in Southern China. Photo: iStock
In the US, for example, police responding to domestic disturbances are mandated to also do animal welfare checks in homes.
“As animal abuse may be more easy to identify or readily spoken about as compared to intimate partner violence, it becomes a gateway to find out what else may be happening in the home or community,” Tucker said.
Children observed to inflict cruel acts on animals must also submit to immediate therapeutic intervention, Swemmer warned, as this could be the start of an escalation of violence against humans.
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Tucker pointed out that domestic violence could also result in an unhealthy aggression towards animals or other people, which is known as a “triad of violence”.
Tucker said the most effective way to curb animal abuse among the youth is through “humane education” to emphasise the positive interactions between people and non-human animals.
The end goal of educational initiatives such as this is to incite empathy.
Unfortunately, despite efforts by different organisations around the country, including police and the NSPCA, humane education is still not a mandatory part of school curriculums.
The NSPCA said animal crimes are often seen as “lesser crimes”, which often produce ineffective sentencing.
The “limited understanding” of animal abuse by the judicial system, from court representatives to law enforcement officials, adds to the frustration.
“Here in South Africa and Africa in general, law enforcement and the judicial system lags behind the rest of the world in recognising these criminal links,” the NSPCA said.
The society wants animal and human abusers to be removed from society as a whole, not only for the safety of others, but to send a message that “abuse of any living entity, not just animals, will not be tolerated in our country”.
Swemmer explained that animals are not considered to have any intrinsic value. This is evident in the legal system, which has animals categorised as objects. This means subsequent sentencing will reflect this “incorrect view”.
“There is the incorrect view in the legal system which does not acknowledge the capability of animals to suffer pain and the need for laws to reflect an acknowledgement of this.”
Unfortunately, the same disturbing trend has long plagued GBV victims as well, with domestic violence perpetrators also not always being sentenced accordingly.
“It is thus not surprising that abuse of animals, even in light of the link, would follow suit.”
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Tucker noted that individual acts of violence are but one factor to consider.
Corporations too are guilty of large-scale acts of abuse towards animals, with Tucker naming live animal exports or derelict conditions on badly run farms as two actions that also perpetuate violence towards animals.
An NSPCA court appearance saw the temporary prohibition of live sheep exports by sea, postponing the treacherous journey around 56,000 sheep were set to endure aboard the multi-decked Al Messilah vessel. Photo for illustration: Jo-Anne McArthur/Israel Against Live Exports
“Overall, this speaks to a broader culture of how we value animals.”
And South Africa is not doing well.
According to the global Animal Protection Index, which grades countries from A to G in terms of laws and policies showing commitment towards protecting animals, South Africa is currently ranked “E” – just two slots from the bottom.
For Tucker, this means there is ample room to improve our treatment of animals as sentient beings and not objects.
She added this has already begun to take effect, with members from GBV and animal abuse organisations last year making a recommendation to the Department of Justice and Correctional Services last year that animal protection be included in the Domestic Violence Amendment Bill.
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