Animal Cruelty, Antisocial Behaviour and Aggression: More Than a Link

Animal Cruelty, Antisocial Behaviour and Aggression: More Than a Link

Author: Eleonora Gullone
Publisher: New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 182p.
Reviewer: Kenna Quinet | March 2014

Many academics are conducting research on the intricacies of the nature and causes of animal cruelty — defining it, embedding animal cruelty in theoretical paradigms within myriad disciplines, and doing retrospective studies and self-report studies of the animal cruelty histories of college students and prisoners. And animals are suffering and dying. We wake up and put cream in our coffee from the dairy “industry,” apply cosmetics, and take medications that were tested on animals, put on our leather shoes and belt and grab our leather purses and wallets and head out the door, and drive our cars with leather seats and steering wheels, perhaps stopping at lunch for a chicken sandwich. We visit zoos, buy our children a “happy” meal, purchase purebred cats and dogs, but drive by stray dogs and animal shelters on our way to the pet store. We probably do not drive by the secluded factory farms and dairy factories, as that suffering and slaughter is hidden out of our view, and anyway, we do not want to know about that dimension of animal cruelty. When confronted with media images and information about animal suffering we look away and turn the channel because we just cannot stand to view it, as it upsets us too much! We do not check with before we make our charitable donations to assure they are not a charity that funds research on animals because ignorance is bliss. The hypocrisy with which most of us lead our lives is in fact part of the problem of creating a true and just definition of animal cruelty, a necessary first step to discerning its root causes.

Why is hunting for fun wrong if others eat meat from the local organic “green” grocer? Why is fur the target of such outrage but not leather? How can we eat cheese or eggs and not recognize the agony and suffering of the lives of dairy cows and laying hens? The legal and academic definitions of animal cruelty are a convenient lie for most of us.

Back to our research: what causes animal cruelty, how could those people be so cruel, how could anyone harm a sweet little cat or dog? Is animal cruelty a precursor of violence toward humans? Is it a dependent variable or independent variable? Does animal cruelty co-occur with other forms of aggression and antisocial behavior? Is animal cruelty a marker for other deviant behaviors? Why do people not care about violence toward animals as a stand-alone problem? And then we remind ourselves that many people also do not care about other people. Not the hungry children, not our elderly discarded, abused and warehoused in nursing homes, not the sick people without adequate medical care, not the poor struggling to survive every day. How could these people possibly care about non-human animals? If we must conduct research, we try to establish a link, convince people that they should care about cruelty toward animals because those who torture, terrify, maim and murder animals might graduate to homicide, serial murder, school shootings, domestic violence and a number of other crimes against the important mammals– humans!
Eleonora Gullone’s Animal Cruelty, Antisocial Behaviour and Aggression: More Than a Link is one in a series of books about various dimensions of animal ethics. Gullone’s book provides a detailed discussion of some existing theories of aggression and antisocial behavior and argues “that animal cruelty behaviours fit logically and comfortably into existing theories of antisocial behavior, thereby arguing for a harmonious marriage between these two separate literatures.” (p.1). Early on in the book, Gullone briefly notes “(e.g., hunting, farming, animal experimentation and behaviours involved in specific cultural or religious rituals) are socially and legally sanctioned” (p.12) and thus are not part of her working definition of animal cruelty. Instead, Gullone’s definition of animal cruelty is“… behavior performed repetitively and proactively by an individual with the deliberate intention of causing harm (i.e., pain, suffering, distress and/or death) to an animal with the understanding that the animal is motivated to avoid the harm. Included in this definition are both physical harm and psychological harm. As per the literature on human aggression, animal cruelty at the more extreme end of the aggression dimension (e.g., burning whilst alive, torture-c.f., murder, rape, assault as compared to teasing, hitting , tormenting) should be considered to be a violent sub-type of animal cruelty” (p.12). But, hunting, factory farming, experimentation, circuses and zoos are not included in this definition of animal cruelty. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Gullone does note the compromised objectivity of scientists whose cultural attitudes permit some use of animals for our benefit.
The primary debate within the animal cruelty research has been whether those who harm animals go on to later harm humans (violence graduation) or, whether those who commit other crimes also include crimes against animals at some point during their lives (deviance generalization). Gullone summarizes research that supports both arguments and causal models and notes that most research has found more support for animal cruelty as co-occurring with other aggressive and antisocial behaviors (deviance generalization) (Arluke, Levin, Luke and Ascione, 1999). It is not clear why we are still talking about the graduation hypothesis, as nearly 20 years of evidence suggests little empirical support. Most likely this is because unless we can link animal cruelty to later human cruelty, we cannot get people to care about violence against animals.
Gullone’s theoretical focus is on the literature from the developmental psychopathology perspective. Although some of the material reviewed is from traditional criminological theories and scholarship and much of the key animal cruelty research is referenced, for the most part this book is a detailed review of psychology’s contributions to the aggression and antisocial behavior literature and the possible connections of these findings to the etiology of animal cruelty. The author’s references to self-control (p.28) and varying forms of criminal behavior over the life course does not include Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) work on low self-control or Jessor and Jessor’s (1977) problem behavior syndrome. Her references to increasing homicide rates since World War II are dated, as currently, violence, including homicide, has declined in the U.S. over the last two decades (as well as the juvenile crime spike referenced in Chapter 7); and her work neglects extensive criminological research of the crime decline (see Goldberger and Rosenfeld (2009), Blumstein and Wallman, 2006; Zimring, 2007). It occurs to the student of criminology or sociology that we really need to all get together and talk — as most of the animal cruelty studies cited by Gullone are not a part of what we in criminology view as the key aggression and antisocial behavior studies or as we say, studies of crime. Where is social learning theory (Akers), social control theory (Hirschi), self-control theory (Gottfredson and Hirschi) since the topics of learning, self-control and control are all discussed in the book? Gullone does feature the relevant criminological work of Sampson and Laub, Blumstein, Farrington, Loeber, Moffitt and others, but does not incorporate key criminological work directly relevant to the topic of animal cruelty such as Agnew’s (1998) significant contribution of a social-psychological model of animal abuse. Feminist and political economy theoretical models of animal abuse are also not mentioned.

Gullone’s theoretical counts of aggressive behavior and animal cruelty (chapter five) focuses on cognitive neo-association, social cognitive and general aggression models (GAM). Chapter six presents biological and individual level risk factors (e.g., testosterone, stimulus-response associations, temperament, and personality and psychopathy) and features a discussion of the trait of Callous-Unemotional as a likely personality trait of juvenile psychopathology. It is argued that the presence of this personality trait is predictive of future antisocial behavior. Chapter seven on environmental risk factors focuses on various family and parenting factors including attachment, parenting practices, parental warmth, coercive and inconsistent discipline, physical punishment, direct and indirect abuse and peer relationships. The chapter on emotional and cognitive processes (chapter eight) may be the most difficult for readers outside of the field of psychology, as it includes discussions of knowledge structures, schemas and scripts, attributional, perception and expectational biases, and accessibility of aggressive responses — topics not regularly found in the traditional criminological discussions of aggression and antisocial behavior.

Although there is a brief chapter on the some of the foundational conceptualizations of animal cruelty (Kant, Locke, Mead, MacDonald), there is no mention of the foundational works of Beirne (1999) and Singer (1975, 2002), except for a reference to Beirne’s (2004) critique of the methodology used to support the violence graduation hypothesis. Gullone’s contribution to a developmental model of animal cruelty does include a nice summary of much of the key animal cruelty research (Chapter 9, Aetiological Accounts of Animal Cruelty) and Arkow’s introduction to the book is a great synthesis of our progress for animals including laws that change animal cruelty offenses from misdemeanors to felonies, inclusion of animals in protection orders, information-sharing among veterinarians, animal control, law enforcement and child abuse officials, and the development of human-animal studies programs in universities across the world. If we combine Gullone’s work featuring the psychological studies on animal cruelty with the theoretical work of sociologists, criminologists and others, we may make progress on the creation of a multidisciplinary theoretical model of animal cruelty (minus the hunting, factory farming and animal experimentation of course).

We know that people who repeatedly harm animals in the traditional (illegal) animal cruelty fashion are likely to harm people when they have a chance. The sequence of animal cruelty occurring earlier than violence towards people may be mostly a function of opportunity; first you harm animals, then siblings, then other children because you eventually attend school, then you abuse in dating relationships and marriage and finally, you have an opportunity to abuse your own children. We do not expect children to be violent to a significant other or partner because they do not yet have one. Although many researchers have pointed out that we cannot begin to disentangle causality because we use cross-sectional research methods, even when we have longitudinal studies that place animal cruelty in time before other aggressive or antisocial behavior, the relationship could still be primarily a function of opportunity and access. Why do serial killers predominantly pick prostitutes as victims? Not because they hate prostitutes any more than they hate other women (although there may be a rare exception to this) but because predators select victims based on access, availability and opportunity. Vulnerable victim pools will always suffer the most.

This book may not fit well in animal rights classes or human-animal studies programs housed in sociology or philosophy departments, but would be a good resource for upper division undergraduate or graduate psychology students interested in animal cruelty, and it should be part of a larger academic conversation and effort to create a multidisciplinary theoretical model of animal cruelty. In a perfect world there will soon be one book that brings all of the relevant literature together and creates a truly multidisciplinary approach to studying animal cruelty. Agnew (1998) was off to a good start with his social-psychological model, but his model reflected primarily traditional criminological theories that as we discover are not even in the argot of other disciplines.

Gullone has pulled together a significant amount of research that can be used to support the link between animal cruelty and other forms of aggression and antisocial behavior. The book closes with a very brief discussion of “an action agenda” primarily focused on changes to the law. Gullone does suggest that we focus on increasing the “worthiness of animal cruelty as a target for intervention” (p. 134), but there were calls for this and more in Peter Singer’s foundational work, Animal Liberation, in the mid-1970s and many contemporary animal rights scholars have made this plea for nearly 40 years. Gullone admirably challenges researchers to include animal cruelty as part of their research agendas. All of the disciplines have committed speciesism, and focused on the harms to people rather than non-human animals. Fortunately, we are making incremental progress and a recent publication in the Oxford University Press online annotated criminology bibliographies recognizes crimes against animals as an important topic of criminological concern (Quinet, 2012).

The author’s suggestions for changes to policy and law do not incorporate the significant body of work on animal law and animals as property (see Francione [2004] and Wise [2000]). A call for increasing public awareness of animal cruelty and strengthening animal cruelty legislation also is not new — and when Gullone begins to get specific, I fear she takes us in a no-win direction. Her call for a new law suggests that rather than separate laws for animal cruelty, family or domestic violence, child abuse and elder abuse, we should have one law that targets all of these behaviors. Future editions should propose the language of a law and tell the reader exactly how such laws would be implemented. Gullone suggests that laws against animal cruelty that include minimum sentences may serve a preventive function. She also suggests we need a change in prosecutors’ perceptions “so that they begin to reflect current scientific understanding” (p.137). We have a long way to go before we can begin to sit down with law enforcement, prosecutors, mental health and other social service providers and summarize what that current scientific understanding is. Again, a multidisciplinary model of animal cruelty, aggression and antisocial behavior, empirically verified and validated, replicated, and revised, and then assessed on a larger scale would help the endeavor. Gullone’s suggestion that laws should punish criminals according to the severity of the acts they perpetrate (no matter the species) would not allow us to exclude the billions of animals involved in factory farming for meat production, and experimentation. Is it likely that the powerful factory farming and pharmaceutical industries would allow such laws to be passed? Is it even remotely possible that killing a dog will be prosecuted as though a human were murdered? I suggest we wish for this day to come but pursue other more likely strategies in the meantime (and indeed we are). We have also seen attempts and successes at legal change in the other direction, such as criminalizing the activities of animal activists, treating their actions as acts of terrorism, and bans against any photography or videotaping in factory farms.

In another example of the lack of cross-disciplinary studies and findings, Gullone cites research supporting a causal link between media violence and behaviors, “observing media violence has a significant effect on attitudes and behaviours” (124). “Exposure to violent television, video games, and movies has been shown to predict increases in aggressive or antisocial behavior” (p. 60). Gullone includes internet violence in the types of violence that has significant effects. This causal effect is much less clear in criminology. Freedman’s (2002) thorough review, Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression: Assessing the Scientific Evidence, finds that there is little or no sound scientific evidence that exposure to media violence causes aggression. Those of us interested in furthering the sound scientific study of animal cruelty and its causes need to reach across the disciplines and compare our basic assumptions.

We should pursue research that will inform psychological assessments and treatment for youth who abuse animals. We should pursue changes in laws so that those who abuse animals are properly punished (felonies) and banned from future contact with animals. Perhaps an animal cruelty offender registry would help to do so. If our goal is to end the death of animals for the benefit of humans, to end the forced births into slavery and unnatural lives of suffering and the eventual murder of billions of animals each year, we need a revolution. Acknowledging the occasional, relatively small animal rights demonstrations in cities across the world, and the yeoman’s work of animal rights activists including high-profile groups such as the Human Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is there ever likely to be a ‘million mammal march’ on Washington D.C.? Some of our most prestigious funders, the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health fund millions and millions of dollars of research on animals, but other key funders, e.g., the National Institute of Justice, appear to be interested in justice for persons rather than animals as they rarely fund animal cruelty studies. Those who want change are up against powerful folks with extraordinarily vast sums of money at stake if they lose their free ride on animals. They want to test their products, medicines, cosmetics, and chemicals on animals and they do this testing every day in our hospitals, government and private laboratories and our very own universities. So you look out your window, across the road to your university medical schools and laboratories and you ponder what kinds of people could harm an animal, what are the causes of animal cruelty and what kinds of people just cash their check and look the other way? In the name of intellectual honesty, we need to expand our definition of what constitutes harm to animals and accordingly, who is committing animal cruelty.


Agnew, R. 1998. The causes of animal abuse: a social-psychological analysis. Theoretical Criminology, 2:177-209.

Akers, R. L. 1977. Deviant behavior: A social learning approach (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Arluke, A., Levin, J., Luke, C. and F. Ascione. 1999. The relationship of animal abuse to violence and other forms of antisocial behavior. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 14: 963-975.

Beirne, P. 1999. For a non-speciesist criminology: animal abuse as an object of study. Criminology, 37:1, 117-147.

Beirne, P. 2004. From animal abuse to interhuman violence? A critical review of the progression thesis. Society & Animals, 12:1, 39-65.

Blumstein, A., and J. Wallman. 2006. The crime drop in America, revised ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Freedman, J.L. (2002) Media violence and its effect on aggression: assessing the scientific evidence. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Francione, G. L. 2004. Animals—property or persons? In Animal rights: current debates and new directions. NY: Oxford University Press.

Goldberger, A. and R. Rosenfeld, eds. 2009. Understanding crime trends. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Gottfredson, M.R. and Travis Hirschi 1990) A general theory of crime, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Hirschi, T. (1969). Causes of delinquency. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jessor, R., & Jessor, S. L. (1977). Problem behavior and psychosocial development: A longitudinal study of youth. New York: Academic Press.

Quinet, K. (2012). Crimes against animals, in Oxford Bibliographies Online: Criminology. Editor, Richard Rosenfeld. New York: Oxford University Press.

 Singer, Peter. revised ed. 2002. Animal Liberation. New York: New York Review.

Wise, Steven. 2000. Rattling the cage: toward legal rights for animals. MA: Perseus Publishing.

Zimring, Franklin E. 2007. The great American crime decline. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kenna Quinet, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Law and Public Safety, School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI)

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