In the last two weeks, I have heard two horrifying stories on the news that have left me feeling both sick and angry, and both of them were cases of animal abuse. One story was of a woman who doused her two dogs with gasoline and set them on fire, and the other was of a cat who returned home for her family to find her severely burned because someone set her on fire. All three of these animals survived (Thank you God!!), however, many cases don’t have such fortunate outcomes. This topic is one that is very near and dear to my heart, because I have “fur babies”, and absolutely adore and love my pets and all animals. How does this relate to counseling, you might ask? Because it’s about the ability to have good and healthy relationships, being a healthy individual who is respectful to others, having good character, a conscience, and the ability to have good boundaries and be respectful of others boundaries and needs (not just humans!). It’s also about having healthy coping skills, knowing how to process and express feelings appropriately and not being emotionally impulsive– not having a sense of entitlement to take your feelings out on others, whether human or furry!
Animal abusers usually have abusive tendencies towards other people, too. Be aware of these characteristics of someone who could potentially abuse animals, because they could also become abusive to you:
- Respect and boundaries: Someone who would abuse an animal may show signs of disregard for rules and boundaries of others. They may feel entitled to create their own “rules” in life, and feel entitled to break the rules and norms of society (e.g., driving drunk, not following the the rules in their place of work, being disrespectful of others belongings and personal space). They may show disrespectful behavior towards others, such as becoming controlling of another person and being irresponsible with life situations (e.g., not paying bills on time or at all because they don’t feel like it or think they don’t “owe” the person or company, not following through with self-care, showing contempt to authority figures such as law enforcement, etc.). If someone is irresponsible with life situations, they will be irresponsible with you and a pet!
- Character and conscience: Someone who is abusive to animals may exhibit character issues, including abusive behavior that is repetitive (e.g., repeatedly saying “I’m sorry” for abusive and destructive behavior but never following through with change, then repeating the behavior over and over with lack of true remorse). Remember that if someone genuinely feels remorseful, they will do what is needed to change their abusive or inappropriate behavior, because they never want it to happen again. Words have little meaning with no follow through. Healthy individuals make decisions to not do things that are hurtful to others because they would feel a healthy sense of shame for doing so. People who abuse (people or animals), often lack a conscience, but can initially come across as being extremely charming and kind. It’s important to recognize the more subtle signs of an abusive personality, to protect yourself from being involved in these relationships.
- Emotionally impulsive and poor coping skills to emotion: Someone who is abusive to animals is emotionally impulsive. They may use substances to allow them to express their feelings, usually in rage or unhealthy and destructive anger. They might lash out at others, including animals, taking their frustrations out on people who feel powerless in the face of their rage. Addictions are often related to abuse. Addictions are basically self-abusive behavior, which extends to the people and animals in the persons life. Having poor emotional impulse control means that a person feels entitled to hurt other people or animals when they are hurting. They feel completely justified in their abusive treatment of others (e.g., “If you wouldn’t have been so distant, I wouldn’t have hit you/yelled at you/destroyed your things”, etc.). They don’t take ownership of their behavior, but blame it on others. This leaves a path of destruction in their lives, with broken relationships in the wake. Many times, they will share about their history of relationships in a way that makes them out to be the “victim” of the other persons abandonment, distance, or lack of caring, in an attempt to elicit sympathy, leaving out the fact that their own abusive behavior was the catalyst for this!
So, what can you do if you know someone is abusive to animals? First, REPORT THEM! Don’t allow the person to intimidate you or scare you into submission. Animal abuse is a crime, and we are responsible to protect them, just as we are responsible to protect children. Call your local humane society, or utilize resources such as www.pet-abuse.com . If not, call your local police department. If you see someone abuse an animal, chances are that what you see is only the tip of the iceberg. Don’t assume it’s an isolated incident, or minimize the abusive behavior. Animal abuse doesn’t have to be so drastic as the examples earlier. It’s basically any unethical behavior towards an animal, and includes hitting an animal, raging at an animal, disregarding the safety of an animal by hurting them in any way, and disregarding the animals fear from this destructive behavior. It also includes neglecting an animal (e.g., leaving them locked or chained up with no interaction and care, inappropriate medical care, not feeding them or giving them the time, love and attention they need, just to name a few!). Find out the animal abuse laws in your state, county or city. Donate to your local animal shelter or organizations whose mission is to protect and help animals, whether it’s the gift of money or your time. Educate yourself on animal abuse and what it constitutes (www.aspca.org, www.americanhumane.org), including checking the animal abuse registry (www.inhumane.org). Finally, SET BOUNDARIES with an animal abuser and follow through with your boundaries. If this puts you in a position of feeling unsafe, then contact the appropriate authorities to help you do so. And remember… this isn’t just about protecting animals. It’s about protecting everyone in the path of an abusive persons life, because if they can abuse an animal, they can most likely abuse a child, a wife, and others, too.
Joleen Watson, MS, NCC, is a therapist at Imagine Hope Counseling Group. She enjoys doing marriage counseling, relationship counseling, couples counseling, and individual counseling. Imagine Hope also specializes in family, child and adolescent counseling and serves Indianapolis area including the surrounding areas of Carmel, Noblesville, Zionsville, Westfield, and Fishers.