When I was five years old I may, or may not, have poisoned a duck.
My grandmother was looking after me and we decided to walk to the waterfront with a bag of bread to feed the birds. After finishing the bread, and when grandma’s back was turned, I picked up a cigarette butt lying in the grass and threw it to a duck … just to see if he would eat it.
It seemed like a great idea at the time. The duck gobbled it up, paddled away, and I’m happy to report that he looked fine.
Regardless, I spend that night drowning in my own repentance.
What might have been.
This is the closest brush I have ever had with animal cruelty. I was never that kid with a magnifying glass who caused mass devastation to a nest of ants. When I try to discern what may have been going through my five-year old head, I can only arrive at ‘random childhood mischief’ (followed, a few years later, by the obligatory graffitiing of my school desk with genitalia).
Don’t pretend you didn’t do it too.
Flying in formation
While I do not condone my minor duck-related misdeed, this is a far cry from some of the more serious cases of animal cruelty that now comprise an almost too familiar narrative. Bad news travels awfully fast thanks to the ubiquitous influence of the internet and social media.
In the past few months some disturbing events have come to light, including an incident at Crufts (a premier dog show in Belgium), where an award winning Irish Setter died after a suspected poisoning from a competitor.
Then there is Australia’s greyhound racing industry expose where live animals, such as piglets and rabbits, have been used in barbaric training exercises for the sake of sport. While both these examples are abhorrent, they could also possibly be chalked up to competitive over-zealousness and a burning desire to take out the opposition.
Other reports are harder to explain. Late last week in New South Wales, Nathan Thompson, pleaded guilty to serious animal cruelty when he bashed nine puppies to death with a stone.
What causes human beings to derive pleasure from torturing animals?
Although we can only speculate about much of what motivates this kind of cruelty, several studies have gone some way toward establishing a link between the mistreatment of animals and other violent behaviour.
Quack, quack, quack!
In 1963, forensic psychiatrist J.M Macdonald theorised that animal cruelty along with persistent bed-wetting and an obsession with fire form the Triad of Sociopathy (also known as the ‘Macdonald Triad’). If all three of these characteristics exist together in childhood development, then an increased chance of violent (and perhaps criminal) tendencies emerge later in life.
Other studies indicate that cruelty toward animals stems from parental abuse or neglect. Pain inflicted on animals is a way for perpetrators to regain power and control – something that is hard to obtain when a child has consistently suffered at the hands of an abusive parent(s).
There are also strong behavioural links between animal brutality and violent acts toward people. Several studies reveal that many violent criminals start their careers with serious cases of animal cruelty in childhood. An examination of the early lives of notorious serial killers such as Ted Bundy and David Berkowitz, for example, has revealed that both men engaged in, and enjoyed, torturing animals.
For anyone looking closely enough, definite patterns emerge. But given the range of factors that contribute to the making of a violent criminal, arriving at what could be considered a ‘typical’ portrait of a serial killer or animal torturer is an ongoing challenge for criminal psychologists.
Fortunately I keep my feathers numbered for just such an emergency
There are some violent tendencies that do not conform to any behavioural model.
In 2008 United States marine, David Motari, was videotaped throwing a puppy from a cliff in Iraq. When commenting on the incident, he said:
“When you are constantly under fire sometimes people develop a different sense of humour than what others are used to.”
He was the only person who found this funny, and once the footage went viral he was discharged.
I’m no psychologist, but through studying these diverse cases I have aimed to pinpoint a behavioural model to serve a theory. As pattern-seeking animals, we will always try to find reason or meaning in that which seems totally unconscionable.
Regardless of environmental factors, there does seem to be a defective ‘conscience gene’ that manifests in some people more than others. It allows these people to not only defer moral reasoning but also to justify cruel or inhumane acts.
How else could throwing a puppy off a cliff be seen as a humorous prank?
When all is said and done
There is no simple answer to explain random acts of cruelty – whether directed at animals or people. Given the right set of circumstances most of us are capable of incredible acts of kindness, but even more staggering acts of brutality or violence.
Indeed, upon further reflection on my infamous ‘Duck Scandal’ (or Butt-Gate as I’m now referring to it) I wonder whether I actually held fears for the safety of that unsuspecting creature; or whether my concerns were really more selfish. Maybe I was just worried about getting into trouble for sending poor duckie to an untimely, watery grave?
Whatever the case, I can only conclude with 100% certainty that some human behaviours will always remain a mystery.
What do you think motivates people to perform callous acts of cruelty towards animals? Let us know what you think in the comments section below!
Animal cruelty is a crime and penalties vary between Australian States and Territories.
If you, or anyone you know, has been exposed to animal cruelty involving your own pet or a stray animal there are some options available. Under Australian law, animals are considered property. This means that compensation may be paid to you for financial loss suffered through the death of your pet, however, this amount is calculated based on the market value of the animal only.
Like many other countries, it is not possible in Australia to sue civilly for loss or harm in the case of abuse, an attack or the death of your pet.
If you suspect your pet has been the victim of a malicious attack (whether from a neighbour or stranger) or if you wish to report a case of animal abuse contact:
- RSPCA; or
- Local police assistance line: 131444 (depending on the nature and severity of the abuse).