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Tuesday, 9 May, 2000, 16:03 GMT 17:03 UK
The chain of cruelty

Why do children torture, maim and even kill animals?

The question has vexed adults sickened by acts of animal cruelty carried out by those we generally regard to be society's most innocent members.

The RSPCA is launching a study to quiz young people responsible for attacks ranging from kicking hedgehogs to placing cats in microwave ovens.

The wellbeing of the nation's animals is not the only thing at stake.
Cats
Cruelty to animals is a "sign things are going wrong"

By understanding what motivates such shocking cruelty, experts may also explore the link between these acts and the progression to violence against other humans.

The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals believes there is a strong connection between harming animals and wider criminal behaviour.

"Every serial killer in the UK this century started as an animal abuser and we ignore that fact at our own peril," said a spokeswomen.

In 1998, the organisation launched the First Strike awareness project, drawing heavily on research into animal cruelty carried out in the United States.

Step forward

The SSPCA's Libby Anderson welcomes the new survey being carried out by the RSPCA south of the border as a "great step forward".

"When you point the link out to people they say: 'It's obvious that violent people are going to be violent to animals."

Ms Anderson says spotting evidence of animal cruelty in a household can be valuable in exposing a range of other problems.
Kelvin the hedgehog
Kelvin's 7,000 spines fell out after being painted by a schoolboy

The men who attack animals, for the bulk of offenders are male, often also perpetrate domestic assaults and child abuse, according to a New Jersey study in 1983.

Children preyed on by these abusive adults are also prone to harming the animals they encounter.

"We should react to animal abuse for two reasons: A) because it is wrong in itself and, B) because it can be a sign that things are going wrong," says Ms Anderson.

The place of animal cruelty in the so-called "chain" of child abuse is by no means a new discovery.

Worrying profile

In 1971, American researchers profiled the typical animal harmer as being a nine-and-a-half-year-old boy, with an IQ of 91 and a history of gross parental abuse.

Dr Eileen Vizard, a child psychiatrist from the NSPCC Young Abusers Project, says a "significant minority" of children referred to her have engaged in cruel or sexual behaviour with animals.

They stamp on small hamsters or mice. Squeeze them or burst them, set fire to their fur.

Dr Eileen Vizard, child psychiatrist

Set up in 1992, and with a national caseload, the Young Abusers Project sees children as young as five who have a record of sexual offences or "extremely" violent behaviour.

"The average age of the children is twelve-and-a-half. A high proportion have a learning disability and many are interested in sex with animals or are cruel to animals," says Dr Vizard.

"These are very disturbed childen in any event, with many having been sexually and physically abused."

Soft target

Dr Vizard says those children who abuse animals tend to opt for ones unable to put up much resistance.

"They stamp on small hamsters or mice. Squeeze them or burst them, set fire to their fur. Gratuitous cruelty for which there can be no justification."

The Young Abusers Project already attempts to identify what motivates such behaviour.
Serial killer Jeffery Dahmer
Jeffery Dahmer harmed animals before going on to kill 17 people

"They tell us they get a feeling of power, a feeling they lack in other parts of their lives."

Some evidence links such high profile killers as Ian Brady, Jeffery Dahmer and "Boston Strangler" Albert DeSalvo to childhood acts of animal cruelty.

Dr Vizard says bestiality and zoophilia can also be signposts in a child's progression to other sexual crimes.

"It's pretty revolting and no one really wants to talk about it; but cruelty to animals, if accompanied by a sexual interest in animals, is a high-risk indicator of a future sex offender."

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