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Is someone who kills animals likely to become a serial killer?

January 12, 2015 11 comments

10917130_1514307598832911_7542187844083024648_nDoes killing an animal mean someone will become a serial killer?

This is the question I have been asking myself for a few days now, ever since I first read the article in The Princeton Union-Eagle (Warning: It is not for the faint of heart) detailing the beating, torture and killing of a dog named Draco by a man named Anthony (Tony) Sather.

I have always assumed that someone who kills or mutilates animals is a serial killer in the making. They have been linked in my mind for as long as I can remember. Killing animals = serial killer. But is it really the case?

Ever since the Justice for Draco Facebook group was created and the petition shared, I have seen comment after comment saying pretty much the same thing:

  • Someone who commits an act like this is a serial killer in the making and they will progress to killing a human being down the road.
  • A person who does this is not normal and never will be.
  • There is just something wrong in the brain of someone who kills animals and they will always want to kill.
  • He will do this again and next time it might be a child.

But is it true? Or, are we just assuming it is because of something we saw on T.V.?

I had to find out if what I thought I knew was accurate. So, I decided to do a little digging.

The first piece I found was about children and animal cruelty (written by Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D, in Psychology Today).  It turns out that cruelty against an animal can be caused by more than just a bad person or someone who is evil. In fact, according to Dr. Johnston, there is a common thread between children who abuse animals and those who have “witnessed or experienced abuse themselves.” Children who experience or witness abuse are more likely to reenact that violence on animal or pet either as post-traumatic play or in imitation of something they witnessed or experienced.

Dr Johnston shared 13 possible motives for child or teen violence against animals, including post-traumatic play and imitation, but also curiosity. She also wrote:

Every act of violence committed against an animal is not a sign that a person is going to turn out to be a homicidal maniac. Particularly with young children, whose natural exuberance and curiosity can lead to some unpleasant experiences for their pets, it is fine to shrug off an occasional lapse in judgment while continuing to educate the child about humane animal treatment.

However, locking a pet inside a closed space, violently lashing out at a pet after getting in trouble with a parent, or taking pleasure in watching an animal in pain are all “red flags” that signal the need for professional intervention. This is particularly true when the child has the cognitive maturity to understand that what s/he is doing is wrong – and repeatedly does it anyway. “Children Who are Cruel to Animals: When to Worry”, Psychology Today, Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D,

So, not every child who abuses an animal is necessarily a serial killer in the making. That is reassuring.

So, what about adults who were cruel to animals in childhood and continued on into adolescence, as it has been alleged in Anthony Sather’s case? Are they serial killers in the making? In another piece from Psychology Today, “Do Mass Killers Start Out by Harming Pets?,”, Dr Gail F. Melson (Ph.D.) shares some concerning information.

Like Dr. Johnston mentioned in the above referenced piece, Dr Melson acknowledges that children who experience abuse are more likely to abuse animals, but she also shares some additional data:

“In an assessment of 1433 children ages 6 to 12, Ascione found that among abused children, 60% had abused animals.” “Do Mass Killers Start Out by Harming Pets?,”, Psychology Today, Gail F. Melson (Ph.D.)

She goes further and writes that animal abuse is usually the first tell-tale sign of trouble in “adolescent and adult killers.” Even more disturbing, evaluations conducted at state penitentiaries show that “70% of the most violent prisoners had serious and repeated animal abuse in their childhood histories.”  In other words, our most violent criminals started first with animals.

However, Dr. Melson also cautions us against assuming a single act is a predictor of someone who will kill in the future and to instead consider a “red flag” that should be examined further. Then there was this piece in Psychology today, which completely contradicted what I had read (and assumed) about animal cruelty and serial killers. According to Hal Herzog, Ph.D., our assumptions about animal cruelty and serial killers are incorrect

“… contrary to popular opinion, most serial killers and school shooters do not have documented history of animal abuse.”  “Animal Cruelty and the Sadism of Everyday Life”, Psychology Today, Hal Herzog, Ph.D.

So, being a psychopath (which is often associated with serial killers) does not necessarily indicate prior animal abuse or acts of animal cruelty, but according to a study mentioned by Dr. Herzog, something else does, sadism.

sa·dism

noun \ˈsā-ˌdi-zəm, ˈsa-\

: enjoyment that someone gets from being violent or cruel or from causing pain; especially : sexual enjoyment from hurting or punishing someone

Sadists gain enjoyment from causing pain, but they are not necessarily always a serial killer or vice versa.

So where does this leave us?  Does this mean serial killers are out? Does this mean killing an animal does not create a serial killer? Or, that someone who commits a cruel act against an animal is unlikely to do it again? Not necessarily, as discussed in “What Makes Serial Killers Tick?”, there are a variety of factors at play, including: early development experiences, genetics, and a combination of other personality traits like anti-social behavior. Not every serial killer started with animals and not every sadist ends up becoming a serial killer.

However, one thing seems to be certain, someone who has killed and tortured animals as a child, and continues to do so into adulthood, will continue to do so until he/she is stopped. Whether or not that person goes on to kill people is uncertain, and dependent on a wide variety of factors.

However, sadistic serial killers do exist, so the possibility exists that someone who kills animals could become a serial killer is there. Whether or not that person will be one can only be determined by those who have an expertise in psychological personality disorders.

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