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(Updated 13/7/01)

First strike against animal abuse

by Nick Mays

ANIMAL ABUSE is a trait which most right-thinking people abhor - but aside from an initial reaction of disgust against any form of animal cruelty, few of us will think any deeper on the matter, or consider the question WHY did a person commit cruelty or abuse an animal? Perhaps the truth is distasteful, perhaps the facts hold too much of a mirror up against our modern society... the truth can be very uncomfortable.

Last week, the RSPCA unveiled its animal cruelty statistics for 2000 and, as ever, they made for depressing reading, showing animal cruelty to be on the increase. However, alongside the cruelty figures were the findings of a research team from Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) on behalf of the RSPCA. The research itself reveals that the reasons people harm animals are complex and that educating children about animals may hold the key to preventing cruelty.

However, the RSPCA/MMU research is not the first of its kind, and it is unfortunate that it does not acknowledge the important initiative into investigating animal cruelty carried out by its Scottish counterpart, the Scottish SPCA. Nor does it acknowledge the recent presentation of the SSPCA’s “First Strike Scotland” campaign, in association with Intervet, which took place at Crufts on May 25th.

The campaign began just over five years ago. The Scottish SPCA was approached by veterinary pathologist Helen Munro. Munro was working on a study, examining the clinical features and the pathology of what she terms the “Battered Pet” - the animal which has suffered a non-accidental injury - also known as physical abuse.

The SSPCA believes that it is important that four types of abuse are recognised. Whether the word is being used in relation to child or animal abuse the definition has to be clear. The four types are:
• physical abuse - also known as “non-accidental injury or NAI for short - or the Battered Child or Pet Syndrome
• sexual abuse - we also use this term in relation to sexual abuse of animals. Bestiality has mediaeval connotations.
• emotional abuse and
• neglect
are self explanatory.

Helen Munro used information from the Society case-files and other sources and with her other research with the American Humane Association, the only organisation in the world to have child and animal protection divisions, the features of cases of animal abuse and child abuse were remarkably similar.


The first of Munro’s research papers was published in the May issue of the BSAVA Journal, after which her findings were included in a new booklet issued by the Society, “Animal Cruelty: Family Violence”.

The Society’s contacts with the Humane Society of the United States were strengthened immeasurably when they heard about their First Strike Campaign. Quite simply, the American campaign highlights the fact that in a family where there is a cycle of violence, the family pet could be the first visible victim. Their campaign also emphasises the fact that animal abuse should be taken seriously, as it could be an indicator of worse to come.

In the last 100 years every American serial killer started his ‘career’ by abusing animals.

In April 1997, the Scottish SPCA was granted permission to use the name of the American campaign and with a little addition, FIRST STRIKE SCOTLAND was launched.

The campaign highlights the link between cruelty to animals and cruel, violent, abusive behaviour towards human beings. The Link has already been extensively studied in the United States, but there is still much to be done in Britain. Yet the notion of such a link is not so surprising. Most of us can see the logic in the idea that the man who beats his dog may well lift his hand to his wife or child.

In America, the FBI considers a history of animal abuse to be a significant part of offender profiling; they see a clear relationship between animal abuse by young people and the pathway to more serious crimes, including murder.

Abusing animals often provides an initial kick, before moving on to human targets; or it may be used for perfecting techniques. Shooting pigeons, torturing cats or poking out rabbit’s eyes may be a hideous form of rehearsal for the future.

The encouraging thing from the American experience is that this behaviour can be altered if it is detected and treated early.

Doreen Graham of the SSPCA comments: “Our Inspectors encounter cases where animals are deliberately deprived of food, water, socialisation or veterinary care. Scottish SPCA Inspectors meet some very violent people. They meet people who maliciously torture, maim, mutilate and kill animals. People who kick, beat, stab, strangle, burn and hang animals. I know from various training sessions with care workers that they can very often identify a number of cases in their own area where animal abuse and violence to humans occurs in the same household.

“There was a little puppy, only three months old, brought into our Lothian Animal Welfare Centre one summer night. His owner had kicked him and thrown him repeatedly against a wall in a drunken attack. That same night he also assaulted his wife and children. It is worrying that his job is working with disabled people.

“A husband attacked his wife’s pet rabbit, injuring it so badly that a vet had to put it to sleep. Four months beforehand, he had thrown their dog against a door with so much force that the door split. Our Inspectors received information that he had attacked his wife more than once, and they were very worried about her safety. Perhaps with reason - when the case came to court, she refused to testify and our case was deserted. We were able to re-home the dog - but we don’t know what may have happened, since then, to the woman.”


Doreen Graham adds that the aims of First Strike Scotland are simple, yet focussed: “First of all, a greater recognition by the general public and official agencies that animal abuse matters... we already know that, but we have a good deal of consciousness-raising to do.

“Secondly, we want offences against animals properly recorded and, if necessary, reported to us. We want to see the end of the “it was only a pigeon” mentality - if it’s recorded, it can start to build a bigger picture. When our Inspectors visit a household to check the animals, and notice other problems there, particularly with the children, they try to pass on information. We never know if this is acted upon as the inter-agency reporting has no formal structure.

“We want to see cross-reporting as a matter of routine - in some American states, it is a legal requirement and animal welfare officers are trained to recognise child abuse.”

The Scottish SPCA has been promoting and facilitating several strands of research by independent academics in Scotland. A research working party meets regularly, led by social work lecturer Lorna Bell from Stirling University, and including veterinary pathologist Helen Munro; paediatrician Dr Jean Herbison; Scottish Women’s Aid representative Laura Aitken, and First Strike Scotland representatives from the Scottish SPCA.

“First of all, it’s quite simply smaller and easier to make the direct contacts to move forward,” says Graham. “Scotland also has a separate legal system and the Scottish SPCA is recognised by the Crown as a reporting agency. That means that we take our cases to court in the same way as the police - by submitting a report to the Procurators Fiscal- our version of the CPS.

“In Scotland, we don’t have juvenile courts. We have Childrens’ Panels. One of the governing principles of the Children’s Panel system is that each child has the right to protection from all forms of abuse, neglect and exploitation. And yet Scottish Office statistics show a steady rise in the need for protection - in their first 25 years of operation, the Panels saw “care and protection” referrals increase to more than five times their original numbers.

“Pets are part of society, family members, and their fate is inextricably intertwined with that of the people they live with. “

The Scottish SPCA has also acted as a catalyst to help women striving to leave a violent home. Scottish Women’s Aid can now contact Pet Fostering Service Scotland and temporary homes can be found for pets at risk. This gives a woman and her children a breathing space to get their lives in order and still retains their legal rights of ownership.


The scheme certainly works in practice as well as in theory. Recently, a member of the SSPCA’s Call Centre staff received a call from a desperate woman. After a particularly menacing row with her husband, she had climbed out of a bedroom window and was hiding in a hedge with her daughter and the family cat. Our Inspector called her mobile and she told him that her husband had gone out and would be away for an hour. We believed the woman and her daughter were at risk. Our Inspector picked her up and took her to a nearby Scottish Women’s Aid refuge. The staff there arranged for the cat to be cared for by Pet Fostering Service Scotland. She left her home of 22 years with multiple bruising, a traumatised daughter, a carrier bag with a change of clothing, her handbag, the much loved cat and a mobile ’phone. We heard from her a few weeks later. The bruising had been replaced with some new-found self-esteem and she was renewing friendships with people she had been forbidden to see. Her daughter had stopped wetting the bed, had settled down well in her new school and for the first time had a ‘best friend’. Having their well-cared for cat back was helping to turn their new flat into a home.

Doreen Graham concludes: “The SSPCA takes animal abuse very seriously. In the partnerships we hope to establish with other welfare agencies, our role is to ensure that they improve animal welfare. We are certainly not planning to step outside our remit or our field of expertise.

“But from our viewpoint as an animal welfare society, we want to promote understanding of the human dimension. When children take a rabbit to a block of flats, douse it in petrol and burn it to death - and this happened in Possilpark in Glasgow - everyone knows it is an act of cruelty. But where did it come from? Can it be dismissed as youthful high spirits or natural curiosity? Are they just ‘daft laddies’? Or may some of them, at least, be victims themselves? And is the cruelty a signal that we ignore at our peril?”

The SSPCA’s approach to the very real problem and very deep-seated reasons behind animal abuse is to be applauded. Research for its own sake proves very little, but when put into practice, as with First Strike Scotland, then positive solutions can be reached.

The Society’s booklet “Animal Cruelty: Family Violence” makes for uncomfortable, sometimes gruesome reading, but should be read by all people who have a genuine interest in animal welfare.

For a copy of “Animal Cruelty: Family Violence”, contact the SSCPA at: 603 Queensferry Road, Edinburgh, EH4 6EA. Tel: 0131 339 0222, Fax: 0131 339 4777. Website:

The SSPCA’s First Strike Scotland campaign forms an integral part of a far-reaching conference arranged by Intervet UK Ltd, entitled “Forging The Link”, arranged in conjunction with the NSPCC. The one-day conference will promote understanding of the link between animal abuse, child abuse and domestic violence, together with the benefits of an inter-agency approach to breaking the cycle of violence. The conference takes place on November 22nd 2001 at Glaziers Hall, London Bridge, London SE1.

Registration is £117.50 per delegate (inclusive of VAT). Registrations may be sent to: Forging The Link, c/o Caroline Cann, Intervet UK Ltd, FREEPOST MK492, Walton manor, Walton, Milton Keynes, MK7 7BR.