Animal Cruelty

Beyond the need to recognize and put an end to animal cruelty for the sake of the animal victims involved, also important is the very direct connection between animal cruelty and human violence. In response to this crisis, many domestic violence shelters have begun to partner with local animal protection agencies to create "safe havens" for the pets of the human victims.


“Acts of violence or neglect perpetrated against animals are considered animal cruelty,” according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA - see related informational paper on ASPCA).  It is important to distinguish between the different forms of animal cruelty.  While fundamentally different at the source, all forms result in the physical and/or emotional suffering of the animal victim. 

One form of animal cruelty is overt, intentional abuse, which occurs when a person purposely causes physical harm, injury or the death of an animal (ASPCA).  Another form of animal cruelty is neglect.  Failing to provide an animal with the basic necessities of food, water, adequate shelter and appropriate veterinary care are all examples of neglect.  In stark contrast to intentional cruelty, the neglect of an animal by an individual is often (though not always) the result of a lack of education and awareness about proper animal care, and can be remedied through education and by requiring the owner to provide these basic life sustaining elements (ASPCA).

While both intentional abuse and neglect can happen at the hands of an individual, larger institutions or businesses that involve animals are also often perpetrators of animal cruelty.  For example, the violent training and culling methods used by organized, large scale dog fighters are an example of intentional cruelty and abuse.  Canned hunting preserves, of which there are over 4,000 locations in the United States, where exotic animals are penned, sometimes drugged and shot or speared by “hunters” is another form of outright animal abuse (Pacelle 2003).  Conversely, the conditions in which many animals are found during a bust of a mass breeding facility, or “puppy mill” is an example of gross animal neglect.

Historic Roots
To begin discussing the history of animal cruelty is to go back literally to ancient times.  Fighting dogs for sport, for example, has been traced back as far as the 12th Century, after the war that ensued when the Romans invaded Britain.  The British, though they lost the war, delighted in the tenacity and endurance of their dogs, and began exporting them for use in pit fights against larger animals like wild boar and bulls.  For centuries these fights occurred across Europe until the baiting of larger animals was prohibited in 1835.  At this point, dog-on-dog combat became the cheaper, legal alternative and the fighting dogs, as well as the taste for the brutal blood sport was exported to other countries including the United States (Villavicencio 2007).

Cockfighting (a fight between two game roosters) has its roots deep in American history and culture, with many of the founding fathers being fond of (and participating in) the blood sport.  It wasn’t until June of 2007 that cockfighting was made illegal in Louisiana, the last of the 50 states to ban the activity – though the ban did not take effect until August of 2008 (Wikipedia).  Though illegal throughout the US at this point, cockfighting still occurs with disturbing frequency across the country, particularly in the rural south and in areas with immigrant populations in whose home countries cockfighting may still be legal and part of the cultural norm.

Of course, animal fighting is only one of the many types of animal cruelty, and each has a different history and timeline. 

The abuse of farm animals in factory farms, for example, did not see an influx until the early 19th century, when small family farms and traditional ranching of livestock started to cave under the pressure of larger institutional farming practices (Bower).  As factory farms became the norm, so, unfortunately did the systematic and prolonged abuse of animals raised for human consumption.  Most animals in these facilities are forced to endure physical and psychological abuse for months if not years on end, deprived of the ability to perform behaviors inherent to their species, and housed in overcrowded facilities with insufficient food, water and natural light.  Most are given steroids to enhance growth, and antibiotics to fend off illnesses that are likely to occur in such unsanitary conditions.  Their eventual slaughter is often performed in a manner as inhumane as the condition in which they are forced to exist until that day.

There are many people working for the improvement of the ways in which animals who are raised for food are handled and slaughtered.  Most notable is Temple Grandin.  She is one of the leading authorities on the design of animal handling facilities, specializing in the humane handling of animals at the point of slaughter in the meat industry.  She is credited with having “done more to improve welfare for animals at the point of slaughter than any human alive.” (The Guardian, 10/25/05)  

Certified Humane ( offers alternatives to people who choose to eat meat, eggs, dairy and poultry but want assurances that the animals providing these were raised and handled humanely.  Certified Humane sets stringent guidelines and conducts rigorous inspections of businesses that raise, handle and slaughter animals for food.  The Certified Humane Animal Care Standards require that:

  • Animals are allowed to engage in their natural behaviors.
  • Animals are raised with sufficient space, shelter and gentle handling to limit stress.
  • Animals have access to ample fresh water and a healthy diet without added antibiotics or hormones.
  • Animals are sufficiently protected from the weather.
  • Animals are provided with other necessary features that ensure their safety, health and comfort.
  • Managers and caretakers are thoroughly trained, skilled and competent in animal husbandry and welfare.
  • Managers and caretakers have good working knowledge of their system and the livestock in their care (ASPCA).

The birth of the Internet opened the door for new types of animal abuse to emerge.  Among the images of animal cruelty that are available on the Internet are “crush videos” in which well dressed women are shown crushing small animals with their bare feet or stiletto heels.  These videos are able to infiltrate mainstream audiences because of increased file sharing networks and the growing popularity of websites that display violent videos for their shock value (  Though illegal under the 1999 federal legislation later nicknamed “The Crush Act,” it is often very difficult to prosecute the offenders of these crimes, as they are usually able to hide behind the anonymity offered by the virtual world

Beyond the need to recognize and put an end to animal cruelty for the sake of the animal victims involved, also important to note is the very direct connection between animal cruelty and human violence. 

In 1997, a survey of 50 shelters for victims of domestic violence and child abuse indicated that during their intake interviews, 85% of women and 63% of children spoke about incidents of pet abuse that occurred within their home.  Further, of the shelter staff surveyed, 83% reported that they have observed the coexistence of domestic violence and pet abuse (Ascione 1997).

In response to this crisis, many domestic violence shelters have begun to partner with local animal protection agencies to create “safe havens” for the pets of the human victims.  Oftentimes, domestic violence victims will delay leaving the violent situation because they know or fear that their abuser will harm their pet as a form of retaliation and control (HSUS).  With the existence of the “safe havens,” the abuse victims in those communities are no longer forced to choose between their pets’ safety and their own.

To continue the unfortunate cycle of violence, victims of child abuse are more likely to become perpetrators of animal cruelty themselves.  In many cases where a child is a constant witness to spousal abuse, animal abuse, or is a victim of abuse himself, he may act out against what he perceives to be the next most vulnerable target – a family pet, or a stray or wild animal (Adams 1992).  

Further, according to data obtained during a 1985 study of 152 men, 102 of whom were serving prison time, childhood animal cruelty was much more prevalent among the violent offenders than among non-violent offenders, or non-criminals (Adams 1992).  It should be noted that most of the world’s most notorious serial killers are known to have had a history of childhood and/or adolescent animal abuse.
Animal welfare organizations have been at the forefront of the push to promote cross-reporting among agencies that handle abuse cases.  Cross-reporting allows for and encourages the protection of all within an abusive situation by providing opportunities to call in any agency that might assist members of the household—for adults, the elderly, children and animals. 

There are great strides being made in the United States to end the suffering of animals at the hands of humans.  A greater awareness of the issue of animal cruelty can be attributed to television programming.  Animal Planet, part of the Discovery Network, has showcased the work of animal investigators all over the country by producing shows like Animal Precinct and the Animal Cops and Animal Planet Heroes series. 

Many animal welfare organizations offer humane education programs.  Schoolchildren are guided toward participation in service learning and community service projects to bring awareness to the issue of animal cruelty.  According to , animal welfare, including abuse and neglect, is one of the top three concerns of teens and ‘tweens (George Weiner, personal communication, June 5, 2008).  Awareness, education and community service are effective tools in the fight against animal cruelty.  As hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, in an anti-cruelty campaign produced by the ASPCA, says, “Cruel’s Not Cool!”

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
Wherever there is cruelty to animals, there are people working tirelessly to put an end to it.  In 1866 the nation’s first animal welfare organization was chartered in New York City by a wealthy shipbuilding heir named Henry Bergh.  After spending time observing the inner-workings of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Great Britain, he wondered if such an entity would be able to help stop the animal cruelty he’d been witness to on the streets of New York.  Upon arriving home in the states, Bergh drew up the charter for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.   The ASPCA’s official charter was signed on April 10th of that year, and 9 days later, the first enforceable anti-cruelty law was passed.

In the years that followed, other organizations sprang up in the United States that modeled themselves after the ASPCA.  The PSPCA  in Philadelphia, PA and the MSPCA in Boston, MA were among the first two to follow Bergh’s example in 1867 and 1868 respectively.  Well over a century later, SPCA’s and Humane Societies exist in cities, towns and communities across the country to combat animal cruelty.  These organizations would not exist without the dedication of a group of caring individuals who truly believe every life deserves respect and compassion and to live free from pain and suffering.

Key Related Ideas

  • Animal Welfare:  The compassion and respect due animals as living, responsive beings.  Animals are entitled to kind and respectful treatment at the hands of humans, and this is not to be left to the compassionate impulses of humans, but is an entitlement that must be protected under the law.


  • Animal Rights: The rights to humane treatment claimed on behalf of animals, especially the right not to be exploited for human purposes.


  • Animal Welfare Act:  A 1966 law that ensures humane treatment and care for animals used in research and for exhibition purposes.  The act also assures that animals are cared for during transportation for sale, and that stolen animals are not eligible for sale (ASPCA).


  • The Link: The documented connection between the abuse of animals and human violence, particularly child and domestic abuse (American Humane). 

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Henry Bergh (1813-1888) – Founder of the ASPCA in 1866, Bergh set out to create a kinder New York for the city’s animals.  Known as “The Great Meddler,” Henry Bergh was inspired to take action against man’s inhumanity toward animals after watching a cart-driver beat his fallen horse (Dracker 1996).  His legacy and mission is still carried out by the organization today.


  • Richard Martin (1754-1834) – Nicknamed “Humanity Dick,” British MP Richard Martin co-founded the world’s first humane organization, the SPCA in 1824.  Two years prior, Martin sent a bill through parliament which offered protection from cruelty to livestock including horses, sheep and cattle.  The Organization later became the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) after receiving the blessing of Queen Victoria in 1840 (Wikipedia).  This organization was the inspiration for the later formed ASPCA in the United States.


  • Dr. Randall Lockwood, Ph.D – Currently the Senior Vice President for Anti-Cruelty Initiatives and Legislative Services of the ASPCA, Dr. Lockwood has over thirty years of experience in the field of animal welfare, specifically as it deals with the human-animal bond and the connections between animal cruelty and human violence.  He has authored and co-authored several books and published many articles on the subjects, and has testified in trials involving animal cruelty as well as animal abuse occurring within situations of domestic violence or child abuse.  Dr. Lockwood also provides training to law-enforcement officials, and professionals in the fields of social service, veterinary science and mental health on recognizing and dealing with animal cruelty in various contexts (Google Pages).


  • Dr. Melinda Merck, DVM – “The Real-Life Animal CSI” – Dr. Merck is the Forensic Veterinarian for the ASPCA.  She began her veterinary career in Georgia, opening a cat clinic in 1990.  Through the years at her own practice, she was involved in helping the local animal control agencies with animal cruelty cases.  In 2003 she joined the Georgia Legal Professionals for Animals, as the Vice President of Veterinary and Forensic affairs, and began working closely with medical examiners and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to further develop her skills.  She has given numerous seminars on the topic of veterinary forensic, and in 2007 published the first ever textbook for the field – Veterinary Forensics: Animal Cruelty Investigations (


  • Temple Grandin, Ph.D. -- Temple Grandin is an important figure in the field of animal welfare.  Her work in designing safe, humane animal handling systems for meat processors has eliminated a great deal of inhumane treatment of animals from the meat processing industry.  Praise for her work in that field is almost universal.  Her other contribution has been to provide some philosophical support for the idea that animals have rights.  Her argument that animals are not things because they can feel pain and fear makes an important moral distinction that demands that humans respect the right of animals to be free of fear and pain inflicted by humans (Learning to Give).

Related Non-Profit Organizations

  • American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) – Founded in 1866, the ASPCA was the first organization of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.  Its mission, as stated 142 years ago remains the same:  To provide effective means for the prevention of cruelty to animals throughout the United States.  The organization boasts regional and national programs, such as Humane Law Enforcement, Legislative Services, Veterinary Outreach and Humane Education.


  • Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) – Established in 1954, The HSUS is currently the nation’s largest animal protection agency.  They actively fight animal cruelty, exploitation and neglect through advocacy programs, investigating cruelty and education.


  • People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) – Currently the largest animal rights organization in the world, PETA focuses their energies on fighting animal cruelty perpetrated by large industries, such as factory farming, the fur industry, animal experimentation and animals used in entertainment, among others.

Related Websites

  • The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals:




Bibliography and Internet Sources
Adams, Cindy A.  “America’s Abuse Problem.” ASPCA Animal Watch, Fall/Winter 1992. 
American Humane.  Understanding the Link Between Animal Abuse and Family Violence.

Ascione, F., C. Weber, and D. Wood.  “The Abuse of Animals and Domestic Violence: A National Survey of Shelters for Women Who Are Battered.”  The Zero, Originally Published in Society and Animals, 1997, 5(3) 

Bower, Joanne. “Treatment of Animals in Agriculture.” New Renaissance Magazine. Vol.6 No.2. 

Dracker, Pune.  “ASPCA History: Regarding Henry.” ASPCA Animal Watch,  Spring 1996.  

Humane Society of the US.  Animal Cruelty and Family Violence: Making the Connection. 

Pacelle, Wayne,. “Stacking the Hunt” Published: December 9, 2003 NY Times  Veterinary Forensics Symposium.  Accessed 7 June 2008.

Villavicencio, Monica.  “A History of Dogfighting”., July 19, 2007