Animal Studies Bibliography

Ascione, Frank R. 1993. Children Who Are Cruel to Animals: A Review of Research and Implications for Developmental Psychopathology. Anthrozoos 6(4): 226-247.

Recent interest in the problem of cruelty to animals and its connections to adult behavior have led to the realization that research on many basic questions is missing: existing and new cases of the behavior, age of onset, gender differences, relation of cruelty to child and family interaction patters, stability between childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, and design and evaluation of prevention programs. Dictionary definitions of cruelty generally include “both behavioral and affective dimensions” (228)--both taking cruel actions and enjoying others' cruel actions or failing to feel any empathy or compassion. Definitions of cruelty to children or other groups can be imported to the issue of cruelty to animals, but become problematic, as in the difficulty of determining whether psychological distress has been caused to an animal. Cruelty to animals has been defined in various ways, alternately including or excluding things like acts of omission, unintentional abuse/neglect, and the like. For this people, cruelty to animals is: “socially unacceptable behavior that intentionally causes unnecessary pain, suffering, or distress to and/or death of an animal” (228). This definition excludes culturally accepted practices (e.g. humane slaughter, animal research, hunting, etc.) and includes both acts of commission and acts of omission, though it only includes those acts when willfully, rather than unintentionally, committed. Bestiality is cruelty even if the animal is not physically harmed because consent is not possible. There have been numerous case studies, scientific studies, and media reports linking childhood cruelty to animals to adult antisocial behavior, and despite some problems with these studies, it is clear that this is an important relationship to investigate. Childhood cruelty to animals has been found extensively among prison populations and clinical samples, but it also exists in the general population, as has been described in adult-tolerated abuse of animals by children at livestock auctions and violence toward animals by children in war zones. In a Canadian census-based survey, mother's reports of 12-16 year olds showed 2% engaging in animal abuse, while children's self-reports were nearly 10%. Cruelty to animals is one symptom of Conduct Disorder, and is one of the earliest-occurring symptoms. Violent acting-out may be caused by two factors (among others):escalation of aggression in families (parenting relying on punitive or aversive control teach these techniques to children, and family interaction involves cycle of attempts to stop the others' behavior this way) and children's attributional biases (kids who have trouble interpreting people's responses often understand neutral expressions as threats and respond violently or aggressively; animals are even easier to misunderstand in this way than are people). We could better measure cruelty to animals if an instrument was developed that addressed it qualitatively rather than counting occurrences--dealing with intensity, duration, and breadth would give a better sense of what is actually happening and may be more important than how many times it occurred. Adults (usually parents or other child care providers) often use threats to harm pets, or actually harm the pets, to discipline children or get them to keep quiet about abuse. Children are also forced by abusers to engage in bestiality. In a household with a lot of aggression, children may learn aggression as a problem- “solving” behavior. All of these experiences may bring children to be violent toward animals, including to continue the pecking order started by adult abuse by, in turn, aggressing against a lower being. Painful childhood experiences may produce greater empathy in adults rather than aggressive behavior, but it appears that in most abuse cases, the children become aggressive and violent instead. Research has shown that kids' empathy toward animals is associated with psychological development. Abuse may block the development of empathy, leading to children's acts of cruelty toward animals. Further research must work on an operational definition of cruelty, including a way to assess qualitative aspects of cruelty such as severity of the act and overt or covert way it was carried out, and positive actions the person takes toward animals as well. We must consider how we should judge responsibility in these cases, as well, to distinguish developmental immaturity from maliciousness. We must also study the processes by which children come to abuse animals, discussed above (e.g. learning from parents, displaced aggression, etc.).Finally, we must create and test prevention programs and make adults aware.


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