It has become almost a mantra within both animal rights circles and the larger mainstream media that children who harm animals are on the path to harming human beings. But is this claim true?
Manchester Metropolitan University researchers Heather Piper and Steve Myers looked at such claims and found a surprising lack of any actual valid evidence for it. They write,
A few years ago, the notion that abused children were likely to become abusers was common. This is no longer accepted as true. In this case the dominant view is that harming animals is directly linked to, or can be treated as part of a cycle leading to, violence towards people. It is suggested that the relationship is clear cut, consistent and predictable. This argument suggests that harming animals can be a predictive variable in indicating future harm to people. There are serious flaws in this argument. Although there may be some disturbed individuals who are cruel towards both animals and people, extreme cases do not provide the basis for generalized conclusions.
Piper and Myers identify two major problems with the alleged link between harming animals and harming people. First, the studies that claim to find such a link rarely define animal abuse in a methodologically sound way,
Few studies define what is animal abuse or violence or harm. Does cruelty include pulling the legs off spiders, or only those of vertebrates? Does it matter that one society eats dogs and another keeps them as pets? Richer children may legally kill animals through fox hunting, whereas poorer ones are prosecuted for similar behavior towards a cat or a dog.
Second, such studies have a deeper methodological flaw in who they choose to study,
Research supporting the supposed links is based mainly on extreme and non-representative samples. Accounts suggesting links between those who have harmed animals and later violence toward humans often rely on the same small sample of extreme criminals in the US. Researching a limited population to produce a broadly applicable generalization is problematic. Any number of life experiences could also be shown to correlate with the behavior.
A further problem is that much of the research tends to suffer from fallacies of logic. Just because some serial killers have harmed animals, this does not mean that all or even the majority of those who harm animals will become serial killers. Yet this stance is taken in much of the literature.
Piper and Myers conclude that “Social workers should not uncritically accept the arguments that have been put forward about linking animal and human violence.”
Missing Link. Heather Piper and Steve Myers, Community Care, October 3, 2002, p.38.