“Until we find the courage to recognize cruelty for what it is– whether its victim is human or animal—we cannot expect things to be much better in this world. We cannot have peace among men whose hearts delight in killing any living creature.”
— Rachel Carson
I am an elementary and middle school teacher. Our first staff meeting of the school year was a heartbreaking workshop on active shooter scenarios and response tactics. It was heartbreaking for a number of reasons. First, we had to hear again in detail about the tragedies in so many schools, including Sandy Hook. Second, we are a group of dedicated educators and it felt like we were in military training. Third, but not least of all, because we are educators and not soldiers, instead of undergoing this kind of instruction we should have been talking about curriculum enhancement and how to better inspire our students to love learning, create purposeful lives, and have a care for the world in which they live. We are losing ourselves – in many ways – to gun violence.
I am filled with as much “weary outrage,” as one editorial so aptly put it, as everyone else about the mass shootings that are so commonplace in the United States. Strict gun control laws are paramount to ending these mass shootings. Universal mental health care is also crucial. I’m sure many other issues, as well, about which I am not well-versed, play a part in gun violence. I’d like to shine a spotlight on one issue, about which I have thought and read a bit, that likely will not be discussed in mainstream media, at least not to any great extent.
A Crime Against Society
Several headlines mention that the shooter who just killed 14 children and 3 adults in Florida, first practiced his acts of cruelty and murder on animals. This has been a shared trait among many mass shooters. Abusing and killing animals is red-flag among many law-enforcement agencies. The FBI highlights animal cruelty by characterizing it as a “crime against society.” They track convicted animal abusers for other possible violent crimes.
The connection between animal abuse and other violent crimes is well-documented. Eighty-three percent of women in domestic abuse shelters reported that their abusers also abused the family pet. Eighty-eight percent of child abusers also abuse animals. People who abuse animals are greater than five times more likely than non-animal-abusers to commit other violent crimes. Eighty percent of people convicted of violent crimes confessed to a history of animal abuse.
If this Florida shooter was known to harm animals, among other indicators of violence and mental illness he displayed, how could he have slipped the net of systems that could have prevented his attack on the school? Part of the answer is clearly one of effective gun control measures. Animal abusers should not be permitted to buy guns. The Illinois State Crime Commission proposed a law in November that would prevent convicted animal abusers from purchasing firearms for life. They are working on putting this into law for Illinois and then nationally. Many animal abusers though go unreported and are therefore never convicted of the crime. Some states have enacted laws which require cross-reporting of domestic or child abuse and animal abuse between law enforcement and social agencies. See the link for a complete list of the states and their cross-reporting requirements. We need national laws that strengthen these reporting requirements and better identify animal abusers.
Part of the answer is mental health care. Animal abusers should receive free, mandatory, ongoing, and thorough therapeutic care for the mental pathology that led to their abusive acts. Children who display violence towards animals should receive immediate psychiatric care. The American Psychological Association, the National Crime Prevention Council, the US Department of Education, and the National School Safety Council all agree that animal abuse by children is a signal of future violent criminal behavior. Early psychiatric intervention in cases of children who abuse animals is crucial for helping these children, who are often the victims of or have witnessed violence themselves, and for preventing future violent crimes.
Gun control laws and responsive mental health care are clear and obvious solutions. There is another aspect of this connection between animal abuse and other acts of violence, which is not as obvious. Actually, it is invisible to most of us and most of us engage in it without knowing. It is insidious. It hides in plain sight. Even as a Montessori teacher, whose creed is founded on peace, kindness, and respect for all living things, this ideology eluded me for years. The following is a definition of carnism from Dr. Melanie Joy’s website, Beyond Carnism (emphasis added):
“Carnism is the invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat certain animals. Carnism is essentially the opposite of veganism, as “carn” means “flesh” or “of the flesh” and “ism” refers to a belief system.
“Because carnism is invisible, people rarely realize that eating animals is a choice, rather than a given. In meat-eating cultures around the world, people typically don’t think about why they eat certain animals but not others, or why they eat any animals at all. But when eating animals is not a necessity, which is the case for many people in the world today, then it is a choice – and choices always stem from beliefs. As long as we remain unaware of how carnism impacts us, we will be unable to make our food choices freely – because without awareness, there is no free choice.
“Why has carnism not been named until now? One reason is that it is simply easier to recognize those belief systems that fall outside the mainstream (e.g., vegetarianism or veganism).
“A much more important reason, though, is that carnism is a dominant belief system: it is so widespread that its principles and practices are considered common sense, “the way things are,” rather than a set of widely held opinions. Carnistic bias is built into the very foundations of society – when we study nutrition, for example, we actually study carnistic nutrition.
“And carnism is also a violent belief system: it is organized around intensive, extensive, and unnecessary violence toward animals. Even the production of so-called humane (or, bio) meat, eggs, and dairy – a tiny percentage of the animal foods produced in the world today – exploits animals and involves brutality.
“In short, carnism is a system of oppression. It is enabled by an unjust exercise of power that causes unnecessary harm to billions of individuals.”
We decry violence against animals, while we continue to eat meat, buy products that test on animals, pay taxes that fund military testing on animals . . . I’m not saying that eating a hamburger is the same as torturing and killing an animal with one’s own hands. But the cultural blindness that allows us to consume animals, or turn a blind eye to experimentation on animals, or minimize, rationalize, and otherwise excuse all other forms of animal abuse and exploitation, is the same blindness that prevents our society from taking crimes against animals seriously enough to stop those perpetrators from “evolving” (as criminal profilers characterize it) and killing people. It is the same blindness that has kept this issue in the background or altogether out of discussions around gun violence and mass shootings.
In order to employ animal cruelty as a warning signal to stop other violent crimes we need a broader definition of animal abuse, but it’s difficult to do that without implicating all of us and exposing our carnistic biases. Look at how the language of the law makes exceptions for these biases. (Emphasis added)
The following is an example of a state statute dealing with cruelty to animals:
959.13 Cruelty to animals.(A) No person shall:
(1) Torture an animal, deprive one of necessary sustenance, unnecessarily or cruelly beat, needlessly mutilate or kill, or impound or confine an animal without supplying it during such confinement with a sufficient quantity of good wholesome food and water;
(2) Impound or confine an animal without affording it, during such confinement, access to shelter from wind, rain, snow, or excessive direct sunlight if it can reasonably be expected that the animals would otherwise become sick or in some other way suffer. Division (A)(2) of this section does not apply to animals impounded or confined prior to slaughter. For the purpose of this section, shelter means a man-made enclosure, windbreak, sunshade, or natural windbreak or sunshade that is developed from the earth’s contour, tree development, or vegetation.[;]
(3) Carry or convey an animal in a cruel or inhuman[e]manner;
(4) Keep animals other than cattle, poultry or fowl, swine, sheep, or goats in an enclosure without wholesome exercise and change of air, nor or feed cows on food that produces impure or unwholesome milk;
(5) Detain livestock in railroad cars or compartments longer than twenty-eight hours after they are so placed without supplying them with necessary food, water, and attention, nor permit such stock to be so crowded as to overlie, crush, wound, or kill each other.
(B) Upon the written request of the owner or person in custody of any particular shipment of livestock, which written request shall be separate and apart from any printed bill of lading or other railroad form, the length of time in which such livestock may be detained in any cars or compartment without food, water, and attention, may be extended to thirty-six hours without penalty therefor. This section does not prevent the dehorning of cattle.
(C) All fines collected for violations of this section shall be paid to the society or association for the prevention of cruelty to animals, if there be such in the county, township, or municipal corporation where such violation occurred.
These statutes, while they cover random acts of violence on animals, devote a lot of language to the transport and keeping of livestock, which do not receive the same considerations as other animals. Consider (4) “Keep animals other than cattle, poultry. . . ” In other words, animals used for food can be deprived of “wholesome exercise and change of air,” and all factory farmed animals are deprived of these. These laws protect the animal agriculture industry more than they protect animals. They expose the fundamental hypocrisy of carnism.
We must take all forms of violence against animals seriously. And we must examine those sanctioned forms of violence (animal agriculture, testing on animals, etc.) with honest self-scrutiny. What part does this ideology have to play in other forms of violence in our society? And how can we use our awareness to help bring an end to violence and create a more just and peaceful world?
Melanie Joy says: “awareness has always been the antidote to violent ideologies . . . virtually every atrocity in the history of humankind was enabled by a populace that turned away from a reality that seemed too painful to face . . . every revolution for peace and justice has been made possible by a group of people who chose to bear witness and demanded that others bear witness as well.”
Consider, also, what these peace leaders have to say about treatment of animals.
“As long as people will shed the blood of innocent creatures there can be no peace, no liberty, no harmony between people. Slaughter and justice cannot dwell together.” Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel Laureate
“Until we find the courage to recognize cruelty for what it is– whether its victim is human or animal—we cannot expect things to be much better in this world. We cannot have peace among men whose hearts delight in killing any living creature.” Rachel Carson
“Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man himself will not find peace.” Albert Schweitzer
Leo Tolstoy said “As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields.”
Teachers and children are on the front lines these day as our schools have become theaters of war. But we are also on the front line of prevention. Education, like awareness, is an antidote to violence. In becoming aware of the suffering of animals at human hands and acting conscionably toward all animals, recognizing our own carnistic biases and refusing to participate in the sanctioned, systemized abuse and slaughter of animals, we refuse to sow the seeds of aggression from which battlefields grow. If we want to teach kindness, we cannot teach children to ignore violence, which is what the invisible ideology of carnism does. In Montessori schools, we are proud of our peace curriculum. But I wonder: without cultivating an understanding of carnism, can our peace curriculum be fully realized? How can we teach peace without trying to understand fully the implications of our attitudes toward and treatment of animals?
We need much stricter gun laws, which must include restricting animal abusers from owning guns. We need better laws to protect animals and to improve reporting of animal abuse. We need good care for mental illness, including treatment for animal abusers. And we should also examine honestly our own carnistic biases toward violent treatment of animals.
Resources for further reading and action:
Read more about carnism and its counter-ideology, veganism. There are many resources for information and action available here.
Sign this proposed Bill of Rights for Animals. Scroll to the bottom of the linked page.
The connection between animal abuse and domestic and child abuse.
“You can help stop the cycle of violence by recognizing that animal abuse is an indicator of serious problems. Reporting animal abuse can help authorities stop other types of violence, and vice versa. Encouraging local law enforcement and prosecutors to take crimes against animals seriously is the key to creating safer communities.”
“This Model Animal Welfare Act has been designed to serve as a basic template and guidance document for those interested in enacting new legislation or improving existing animal protection legislation. It has been drafted using an extensive comparative law exercise, taking into account ‘best practice’ in the field. Thus it is aspirational in nature.”
“The Animal Legal Defense Fund’s mission is to protect the lives and advance the interests of animals through the legal system.”
Informational booklet for prosecutors on the link between animal abuse and other forms of violence.
Sign the Care2 petition to Congress to prevent animal abusers from owning guns.
Calling is the most effective action you can take. Please call your U.S. Representative and your two U.S Senators to urge them to cosponsor S.322/H.R.909. Look up your legislators’ phone numbers. You can say, “I am a constituent, and I am calling to ask you to please cosponsor S.322/H.R.909, the Pet and Women Safety Act, and do all that you can to support it, to help pets and victims of domestic violence.”
Please make a brief, polite phone call now to your U.S. Representative. Look up your federal lawmaker’s phone number. You can say, “As a constituent who cares about animals, I urge you to co-sponsor H.R. 1494, the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act. If you’re already co-sponsoring the bill, thank you and please do all that you can to get it enacted quickly.”
Animal Cruelty, Law Enforcement, and Prosecution- FAQ
Many original research articles sited here.
“Since 2001, Positive Links has been training professionals (animal control officers, police, health care officials, educators, and others) to take animal cruelty seriously, recognize it, and act on it so that victims and abusers get help.”