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Animal Alert For Family Violence

A neighbour’s dog howling with pain could be more than just a sign of cruelty to the animal itself. It might also signify the presence of gross domestic violence and child abuse.

American psychologist and animal welfare expert, Randall Lockwood, says an increasingly large body of evidence points to a correlation between cruelty to animals and violence against humans, including children.

“Many of the most notorious serial killers are known to have also been animal abusers. But the correlation is much broader than that,” he says, citing a 1997 study showing that almost 40% of animal abusers surveyed had committed violent crimes against people.

Dr Lockwood, who is Vice President for Research and Educational Outreach at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), is currently in Auckland and will be addressing this weekend’s annual conference of the Royal New Zealand SPCA.

“Evidence of the overlap between animal cruelty, child abuse and violent crime has been mounting for years. For example, in a 1983 New Jersey survey, 88% of families reported for child abuse were found to have histories of animal abuse. Similar results were registered by a study in the United Kingdom,” he says.

“Comparable findings emerged from recent surveys in US women’s shelters, with three quarters of pet-owning women saying that a pet had been threatened, injured or killed by their abuser. And, in all too many cases, fear of what might happen to their pet has emerged as a reason why many women remain in abusive relationships.

“We’re increasingly realising that animal abuse is one of the most recognisable symptoms of something wrong. A woman who’s beaten may suffer in silence but a beaten dog will howl with pain. And that may lead to a report and investigation of a broader pattern of violence,” adds Dr Lockwood.

Since 1997, HSUS has been carrying out its “First Strike” programme, aimed at increasing awareness of the link between animal abuse and violence to humans and at encouraging agencies to cooperate more closely in detecting and reducing violence.

“We’ve run hundreds of workshops, bringing together social workers, law enforcement officials, judges, educators, animal protection workers, veterinarians and concerned citizens.

“In addition, we’ve helped set up safe havens for the pets of domestic violence victims. And we’re promoting local programmes which pair at-risk adolescents with abused or abandoned dogs. Experience shows that training a dog can help a youngster develop a sense of empathy for the animal and, hopefully, for all living things,” says Dr Lockwood.

“In a few short years, well over a hundred First Strike programmes have been established across the United States. It’s a sign that attitudes are changing and that cruelty to animals is becoming as socially unacceptable as domestic violence,” he says.

However, it’s not just the connection between cruelty to animals and violence to humans that interests Randall Lockwood. His concern is with the overall bond between our species and other animals and with why this sometimes goes wrong.

“I was involved in some of the early research showing the health benefits to humans of pet ownership, particularly in the cardio-vascular sphere. But I’ve also spent some 25 years looking at less pleasant forms of animal-human interface, including the problem of dangerous dogs.

“Here again, there’s been a real shift in attitudes in recent years, with more humane and intelligent dog-training replacing the once-fashionable military approach and helping to reduce behavioural problems. Yet, unfortunately, many people still choose dogs primarily for protection rather than as companions. This runs counter to the basic bond between humans and dogs and is a cause of many of the problems remaining,” he says.

“Public Health data in the United States shows that if you acquire a hand gun with the idea that it will help protect your family from an intruder, that gun is actually more likely to be used by one family member to kill another or to commit suicide. Likewise, of more than 300 fatal dog attacks I’ve investigated in a quarter century, only one was of a dog attacking a burglar. Most of the victims have been children, killed by a family or neighbour’s pet,” says Dr Lockwood.

In Randall Lockwood’s view, the key to dealing with aggressive dogs is not to demonise and ban certain breeds but to hold dog-owners responsible for their animals’ actions. He also believes that what are often categorised as dangerous dog problems are in reality aspects of violent juvenile crime.

“Our experience at HSUS is that aggressive animals are characteristically unlicensed, un-neutered and owned by individuals who are legally too young to own them. In America’s inner cities, it may be all too easy to acquire a gun. But it’s easier still and cheaper to acquire a potentially dangerous dog. And whose fault is it, when something goes wrong; the dog’s or the owner’s?

“We also need to keep a sense of perspective and remember that fatal incidents involve only one ten thousandth of one percent of all the thirty-five million dogs in the United States. Public policy towards animals certainly needs to take these horrendous fatalities into account. But it shouldn’t be wholly driven by them,” he says.

The Royal New Zealand SPCA’s Chief Executive Officer, Peter Blomkamp, says the organization is delighted to be able to welcome Randall Lockwood to its conference.

“Dr Lockwood is one of the most respected and experienced campaigners on behalf of animals. His well-researched insights into the connection between animal abuse and family violence are clearly of great relevance to New Zealanders. So are his views on dangerous dogs and the responsibilities of owners,” says Mr Blomkamp.

Randall Lockwood will be speaking on “Dangerous Dogs and Dangerous People” at the RNZSPCA Annual Conference at the Barrycourt Suites–Hotel & Conference Centre at 1.30 pm on Saturday 19th May.


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