Editor's note: Diane Girardot is sending dispatches from the American Psychological Association conference in Orlando, Fla. from August 2-5.
By Diane Russell Girardot, L.P.C.
It is very likely that the individuals who set fire to dogs and cats in the Philadelphia area this summer would turn their attention to humans, as predicted by FBI and University of Florida data gathered in separate studies of animal cruelty.
The FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit's study, begun in 2008, is not complete, but so far, violent offenders already jailed for crimes against humans have a history as children of acts of cruelty toward animals. The acts themselves are showing to be important as risk factors for future interpersonal violence, according to the research presented this week at the American Psychological Associations Annual Convention in Orlando, Fla. Was the act part of an emotional event or deliberate? How consistent has it been? Was there emotion and remorse or was it predatory behavior?
Ongoing BAU research and consultation with law enforcement is hopefully going to help predict and prevent animal abuse cross over to humans.
Data from the University of Florida suggests that if the abused animal was a pet rather than a stray, farm or wild animal, then the seriousness of the pathology increases and so does risk. Offenders in this study were already in a maximum-security prison for a variety of violent and non-violent crimes, including murder, assault, drug related offenses, theft, DUI, burglary and disorderly conduct.
"People who kill their own pets are nihilistic," said Kathleen Heide, Ph.D., a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, whose study explored the relationship between animal abuse and violent vs. non-violent crimes within society. "They will kill again and enjoy acts of destruction."
But non-violent criminals may have abused animals for perceived misbehavior or have a practical motive. Heide said one man jailed for vehicular homicide had chopped up and gutted several stray cats on one occasion because he feared fleas were biting his son. He had no earlier history of animal abuse, but some obvious mental health issues.
The data presented is a clear warning that witnesses of suspicious behavior by a neighbor or family member regarding animal mistreatment who don't report it are putting themselves and others at risk.
Pennsylvania's anti-cruelty hotline is 866-601-7722. Call to protect the animal and possible yourself.
For additional information about children and violent crime, Heide, has authored two books, Why Kids Kill Parents (1992) and Young Killers (1999).
Diane Russell Girardot is a Chester County-based licensed mental health professional, who is a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter now merging both careers with her coverage of the APA convention.