Killers' animal instincts

The sadistic fantasies that drive serial killers have their roots in childhood - there is a compelling link with cruelty to animals.
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The Independent Culture
Five months before Luke Woodham, a 16-year-old American schoolboy, killed his mother and shot dead his former girlfriend and another girl, he had killed his dog, Sparkle. The police found out about this in his diary. It told in grotesque detail how Woodham and an accomplice had tied his "loved one" up in a plastic bag, taken her into the woods and hit her, listening to the "almost human" howls. He then covered the bag with lighter fluid and put a match to it revelling in the animal's suffering. Finally, the pair put the burned bag into a pond and watched it sink. "It was pure beauty," Woodham recorded.

Hearing this horrific story, we feel that there must be a connection between the sadistic impulses manifested in Woodham's killing of his pet and his later drawn-out deliberate relish in the anguish of his other victims. There is indeed a link. When the FBI examined the biographical data of serial and sexual killers, extreme cruelty to animals regularly appeared in their childhoods. For example, Jeffrey Dahmer, the mass murderer, used to cut up and eviscerate animals as a child, sticking their heads on sticks and showing them to other children. In five out of six of America's schoolyard killings, cruelty to animals has been identified in the killers' backgrounds. In Britain it is known that one of the boys who killed James Bulger regularly pulled the heads off pigeons.

Now, as a Panorama special report showed last night, police and professionals working with children and animals in the United Kingdom, as well as in America, take very seriously the idea that animal abuse by children may be a vital warning sign. It is a recognition that Dr Eileen Vizzard believes is long overdue. She is the clinical director of the Young Abusers Project, set up in London in 1992 to deal with children who were abusing other children. "There is a great deal of scepticism about the idea that hurting animals can be a very sinister indicator of trouble," she says. "It is all too easily dismissed as naughtiness or something that simply needs to be punished. But harming animals is one of the things that tells us very clearly a child is troubled and disturbed. We also know that, if it is not picked up and dealt with while the child is young, then they may well go on to commit similar sadistic violent acts against humans."

In a recent study of children referred to the Young Abusers Project, which is funded by the NSPCC and the Islington and Camden Health Authority, Dr Vizzard also found, in some cases, a history either of sexual activity with animals or of non-sexual cruelty. These are children in whom, Dr Vizzard says, she can see "future Fred Wests", driven by violent sadistic fantasies in which they cause terrible harm to other children.

From his different perspective, Robert Ressler, who has spent 16 years with the FBI's Behavioural Science Unit and has interviewed a huge number of violent offenders as well as conducting detailed research, echoes Dr Vizzard's conviction: "Over and over there would be cruelty to animals and the events would occur very early in their lives... sometimes as young as five... and much of their behaviour was driven by bizarre fantasy. This would start when they were too young to victimise a human being and later on it would develop into the ultimate need to control... to hold in their hands a human life. The torturing and killing of cats, dogs, birds would be a rehearsal for what was to come later in life."

So where does this information lead us? Gerry Tissier, of the NSPCC, says "The first question to ask is: why should a child want to do these things to animals? From that we may find that the child itself is being abused or is witnessing violence and is acting out that trauma." Certainly, Dr Vizzard's work leads her to conclude: "In every case that we have seen where there is cruelty to animals, the children are victims of sexual and physical abuse or emotional and physical neglect. That is their experience, and they act it out on their own victims. They are full of extreme anger and resentment."

In Scotland, a First Strike campaign has been set up; the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reports cases of animal abuse to the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. This has a twofold purpose. On one hand they may identify children who are victimising animals and, possibly, other children - but just as important is rescuing and protecting them from the abuses that they may be suffering.

Robert Ressler thinks that it is vital that we recognise this pattern rather than using the convenient concept of the natural-born killer, original sin in demonic form, to explain the pathology: "There's no such thing as a person reaching 15 years of age, having had a perfect childhood, and suddenly becoming violent at 20. There's a developing pattern that starts when young, often in the cradle because the child witnesses violent acts. As they get older they experience that violence and eventually they start practising themselves."

Alan Millar, who works on behalf of children at the Scottish Reporter's Administration and supports the First Strike campaign, explains that research now supports what had been only suspected anecdotally. "Many professionals working in childcare will simply not have connected animal welfare and child abuse before," he says. "Although we don't immediately assume that, because research suggests a high statistical correlation between the two types of violence, in every case the connection is proven, if, for instance, we find a family where children and animals have both suffered suspicious injuries, it will raise the level of concern."

However, although, on both sides of the Atlantic, formal organisations should be taking the cruelty connection seriously, it is equally important that parents, relatives, teachers and friends understand the seriousness of abuse of animals. It is possible to intervene with professional help and divert a child from what may be a deadly course, if he - or, far more rarely, her - is caught young.

When a child pulls the wings off a fly, kicks the cat in a rage or throws stones at a dog, this is not normal high spirits but something that needs immediate attention, says Ressler, adding: "Parents are protective... they go into denial and ignore it, hoping it'll go away, but what they may be seeing is the excitement and gratification that come from creating suffering." By disregarding it we may be ignoring the child's own cry for help and the suffering of his or her potential human victims in the future.

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