The dog on the chain vibrated with excitement as the woman picked her way through the muddy, junk-strewn yard. She was only bringing a bale of straw to line the floor of the dog’s dilapidated doghouse, a small measure of comfort that would hopefully prevent the dog from freezing to death in the coming winter months. But for a dog who goes without human—or canine—contact for 23½ hours out of every 24, this was a thrilling event.
Such impoverished living conditions might find favor with South African President Jacob Zuma, who caused an international uproar recently when he told attendees of a rally that people who lavish their dogs with so-called extravagances, such as taking them to the veterinarian when they are sick, show a “lack of humanity.”
Zuma has it precisely backwards, of course. It has been demonstrated over and over again—so many times that you’d think that it wouldn’t bear repeating—that it is not the people who are kind to animals that we have to worry about. It is the people who are cruel.
That’s because cruel people are equal opportunity abusers. Men who beat their dogs often beat their wives and kids, too. In three separate studies, more than half of battered women reported that their abuser threatened or injured their animal companions. The same goes for negligent and abusive parents. Sixty percent of more than 50 New Jersey families being monitored because of incidents of child abuse also had animals in the home who had been abused. In Indiana, a couple faced felony charges after authorities reportedly discovered their two children and three dogs languishing in a trash- and feces-strewn home. In Illinois, authorities found 40 sick and emaciated dogs mired in 6 inches of feces on a filthy property that was also home to three children.
History is replete with serial and mass killers whose violent tendencies were first directed at animals, including the Boston Strangler, the Son of Sam and Jeffrey Dahmer, just to name a few. Not much is known yet about Adam Lanza, the disturbed young man who massacred more than two dozen first-graders and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, but the youngsters involved in previous school shootings at Columbine; Pearl, Mississippi; Jonesboro, Arkansas; and other places “practiced” their crimes on animals.
The FBI has found that a fascination with cruelty to animals is a red flag in the backgrounds of serial killers and rapists, and a police study in Australia revealed that “100 percent of sexual homicide offenders examined had a history of animal cruelty.” President Zuma himself was charged with rape in 2006. He denied the charge, reportedly saying that he could tell the woman wanted sex because she was wearing a short skirt.
Contrary to the implication of Zuma’s dog-pampering comments, kindness is not something that gets used up. You don’t start out your day with a measure of kindness that you have to dole out sparingly, reserving it for the most “worthy” recipients. For example, the people whom a Clemson University student recently documented intentionally running over lifelike rubber turtles that he had placed in the road as part of an experiment weren’t saving up their kindness—if indeed they possessed any—for a little old lady crossing the street in the next block.
Scientists are planning to study Adam Lanza’s DNA in an effort to determine if there is some genetic marker or mutation that sets apart a mass killer. While they’re at it, maybe they should also study the DNA of people who intentionally mow down animals or chain up their dogs and leave them to rot in the backyard. They might be surprised by what they’d find.