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Paramedics initially responded to a recent report of a woman being bitten by a dog at an apartment in a dilapidated building in Queens, New York. Once there, the emergency responders witnessed a 29-year-old man physically assaulting his 28-year-old female partner. Police found evidence of animal cruelty and danger to four children, ages 7-11.

According to news reports, the children were placed in temporary custody in the city’s Administration for Children Services. The City Animal Care and Control removed and are caring for five dogs, 10 puppies, two boa constrictors and a lizard from the home.

Neighbors stated that they had called the police on several occasions to report that the couple was fighting but that the police had not responded. The landlord reported that the tenants owed him several thousand dollars for past rent and damages to the apartment.

As we near the end of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we return to a topic with which readers of this website are familiar – the relationships between human violence and animal abuse. The above account of a recent incident illustrates several points worth noting.

Domestic violence and animal abuse typically occur in a dysfunctional family system. That system is complex, interweaving many factors and conditions: legal, cultural, economic, familial, intrapersonal and constitutional.

The relationships between human violence and animal abuse often are patterned in the form of a vicious cycle. Animal abuse is frequently used as a controlling device in dysfunctional domestic relationships. Abused animals are more likely to be aggressive toward humans. Children who are abused are more likely to abuse animals. Children who witness animal abuse or domestic violence are more likely to themselves to abuse animals and to bully classmates and future human partners. They are also prone to anxiety symptoms similar to those seen in post-traumatic stress disorder. 

These several intra- and extra-generational and -species relationships and others in the literature help explain the intransigence of violence and the necessity of dealing with it on various levels: educational, legal and psychotherapeutic, among others.

One other interesting point in the present incident is particularly telling for the issue of domestic violence. According to several newspaper accounts of the New York incident, the authorities failed to respond to earlier reports of domestic violence but did respond to the “dog bites woman” call for help. Apparently, despite considerable progress in the past few decades in recognizing domestic violence as a serious public health and legal issue, aggressive animals are considered a greater threat than aggressive humans. This is a disservice to the victims of domestic violence and a bad rap for the animals.

Ken Shapiro

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