Serial murder, animal abuse, and the complicated relationship between the two.

According to a recent Hufington Post article, a number of mutilated and posed animals have been found in public places in London, Ontario, raising concerns about a serial animal killer. Could humans be his next target?

The Link Between Serial Killers and Animal Cruelty

In his book Defending the Devil, criminal defense attorney John Henry Browne, who represented serial killer Ted Bundy at the height of his murderous career, says that his client's lethal ways began as a child in Tacoma, Washington. The future serial killer would buy mice at a local pet shop, build a little corral in the woods, and “play God” to determine their fate. Some he’d kill and others he’d let go. Bundy later used the same approach with women. Boston Strangler Albert DeSalvo reportedly trapped dogs and cats in wooden crates and shot them with a bow and arrow. Chicago serial murderer John Wayne Gacy allegedly lit live turkeys on fire, after dousing them with a gasoline-filled balloon. The list of serial killers who abused animals as children is long, with prevalence estimates ranging from 21 percent to 73 percent. 

Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D,Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D, is a forensic psychologist and private investigator who has done criminal and civil work since 1991. She has worked in a maximum security prison and has consulted with organizations on harassment/discrimination complaints. She is also an active writer, having published numerous articles and books, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Psychology, 4th Edition.

Editor: Saad Shaheed

This link has been used for decades to argue that budding serial killers often begin their criminal careers as children, first by targeting animals and later “graduating” to humans. Further support for the link between animal and human cruelty are the myriad examples of adult serial killers who tortured and killed humans in similar ways to which they had hurt animals as children: Caroll Edward Cole strangled puppies and people; Robert Bordella, a.k.a. the Butcher of Kansas City, drank animal and human blood; and John Norman Collins strangled a cat and, later, six women.

Other People Do It, Too

We don’t know how many “normal” U.S. citizens have engaged in animal cruelty; in a survey of adults in 43,000 households, slightly less than 2 percent acknowledged engaging in deliberate cruelty toward an animal at least once. However, that rate depends on how we define animal cruelty; more than 30 percent of college males admit to hurting an animal at some point in time. 

Fortunately, we’re about to get a more realistic picture of animal abuse. In January 2016, for the first time, the FBI added animal cruelty to their Uniform Crime Report (UCR). Prior to this, it was filed under an “all other offenses” category, which was essentially worthless in terms of data collection. Not only will overall prevalence rates be collected, it will also be subdivided into four categories—simple or gross neglect, intentional abuse and torture, organized abuse (animal fighting), and animal sexual abuse.

What we already know is that there is a definite connection between animal cruelty and other criminal behavior—both violent and nonviolent. Rarely does animal abuse happen in isolation, either in children or adults. Children who abuse animals are likely to live in a home where humans are also being abused, and adult animal abusers are five times more likely to commit acts of human violence such as assault and rape, four times more likely to commit property offenses such as burglary and vandalism, and three times more likely to commit drug offenses. Fifty percent of school shooters also have a history of animal cruelty. It’s not just serial killers who abuse animals; violent offenders, in general, do. 

Is it really that future rapists, murderers, and serial killers start out rehearsing on animals and progress to people, or is animal cruelty simply part of a larger pattern of anti-social, aggressive behavior? 

Can the Kind of Animal Cruelty Give Us a Clue? 

Unfortunately, animal abuse is all too common; while we’re waiting for U.S. statistics on animal cruelty, England and Wales have already documented nearly 160,000 reports of animal cruelty in the span of a single year (2014). Its report also includes a wide range of behavior—neglect, physical abuse and torture, organized abuse like dog fighting, and animal sexual abuse. Each of these forms of abuse can have devastating effects on an animal; the long, drawn-out, and painful suffering of an animal, either as a result of willful neglect or the denial of an animal hoarder, can be just a heinous as active acts of cruelty. 

These, however, are not the acts of a serial killer.

When serial killers abuse animals, they are more likely to deliberately and repeatedly inflict pain. They are among the one in eight animal abuse perpetrators who engage in deliberate and purposeful violence. They are the minority who torture or hurt animals to relieve boredom, or just for “fun.” They may put a bunny in the microwave to see how long it takes to die, or strangle a neighbor’s pet and leave it on the doorstep for him or her to find (perhaps hiding behind the bushes to watch the reaction). The abuse is cold and calculated, involves preparation and planning, and is just as likely to involve a family pet as it is a stray.     

The Bottom Line

It’s sad but true that cruelty to animals happens far more often than we might think. Sometimes, it’s an isolated incident; a frustrated adopter smacks a puppy for peeing on the carpet (again), feels remorseful, and gets help with housebreaking. Sometimes, it’s unintentional; a well-meaning rescuer can’t take care of the number of cats she’s taken in, and others need to step up to help. 

Sometimes, though, it’s part of a bigger—and scarier—picture. While the jury is still out on whether animal abuse leads to human abuse or is simply part of a larger pattern of criminal, anti-social, or violent behavior, we do know that adults who are repeatedly and intentionally cruel to animals are also more likely to engage in other illegal behavior, including violence toward people. As I wrote in a previous post, a woman whose boyfriend hits his pet should know that she could wind up as a wife whose husband hits her. And an adult who repeatedly engages in sadistic violence toward animals is an adult we need to worry about.