Don't Put The Blinkers On Animal Cruelty
TES|October 03, 2019
Teachers often keep quiet if they become aware of a student hurting a pet for fear that reporting it will lead to the child being labelled a psychopath. But the reasons for this behaviour are far more varied and could actually signal that such children are themselves in danger.
Emma Seith

Nikolas Cruz had got into trouble for shooting chickens. He had also boasted about killing animals and posted images of them on social media. There are even stories about him trying to get his dog to attack a neighbour’s potbellied piglets.

In February 2018, Cruz killed 17 staff and students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Florida.

In the UK, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables would often, according to neighbours, shoot pigeons with air rifles and tie rabbits to railway lines to watch them be run over. In 1993, when they were just 10 years old, they killed toddler James Bulger in Liverpool.

It’s a familiar scenario: a heinous crime has been committed and, afterwards, the background of the perpetrators is analysed and picked over in a bid to uncover if there were warning signs that might have been missed or chances to intervene that were lost.

A picture of chaotic childhoods, peppered with abandonment and violence, often emerges – and, in among the flow of shocking stories, we often hear tales of animal cruelty.

That link between animal cruelty and extreme acts of violence – and psychopathic behaviour traits – has become well established in the public psyche. So much so, in fact, that fears over wrongly outing a child as the next Venables is stopping teachers from reporting incidents, according to Gilly Mendes Ferreira, head of education and policy at the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA). Most teachers recognise there are likely other reasons for the cruelty, but they fear that reporting it will mean only the worst-case conclusion will be considered.

It has become, says Ferreira, something of a “silent area” as a result. And that silence can be extremely damaging.

Changing perceptions

Animal cruelty in childhood can indeed be a red flag for psychopathic traits, but there are many other things that can also be going on, says Jo Williams, a professor of applied developmental psychology at the University of Edinburgh and the coordinator of Children, Adolescents and Animals Research (Caar).

“It could be a red flag for the situation the child is growing up in, in which case it could be seen as a cry for help that should not be ignored because it’s very much linked with child abuse and domestic violence,” she says.

“And it could also be a red flag for the child in terms of mental health problems that might be developing or behavioural issues.

“So, there’s a range of different ways that we might see this and, at the moment, there’s often a jumping to the [conclusion] that there’s a problem with the child, and this is a fear that parents also hold.”

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