Animal cruelty is a reliable predictor of criminality -- which is why the FBI is taking it more seriously

What do Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer and a host of other serial killers have in common, besides killing enough people to merit their own mortuaries? The answer, according to published reports, is that as children they tortured animals. Dahmer tortured frogs, cats, and dogs, decapitated them and mounted the heads on sticks. His own puppy suffered this fate. Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011, kept pet rats and tortured them according to the recent book One of Us. It is the escalation from animal abuse to human abuse seen in the cases of Dahmer, Breivik and other criminals that have helped put a bigger legal spotlight on animal cruelty.

Last fall, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced it was elevating animal cruelty to a Group A felony, a charge as serious as homicide, arson, and assault. It was an acknowledgment that the agency understood the well documented links between cruelty to animals and criminal behavior, whether dog fighting rings run by organized crime, domestic abusers who begin with family pets or psychopaths.

Earlier this year, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) feted FBI director James Comey for giving final approval to including animal cruelty offenses in the Uniform Crime Report. The National Sheriff's Association hailed the upgrade and Deputy Executive Director John Thompson says he is pledged to raise educate law enforcement personnel about how strongly animal cruelty is "connected to interpersonal violence."

The FBI's tougher position on animal cruelty will improve data collection by providing a road map of criminality in a given area, say law enforcement personnel; a raid on a dog fight, for example, often nets men and women who are wanted for other offenses and usually a cache of guns and drugs. The FBI reclassification also establishes animal cruelty as a more serious charge in the eyes of the public and legislators than it has been, and could lead to tougher laws.

Recently Congresswoman Katherine Clark (D-MA) and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehitnen (R-FL) introduced the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act of 2015 which addresses "the estimated one-third of domestic violence victims who delayed leaving their abusive relationships out of concern for the well being of their pets."

“No one should have to make the choice between leaving an abusive situation and ensuring their pet’s safety," says Congresswoman Clark. "I am grateful for the partnerships we’ve formed across the aisle and between organizations working to end both domestic violence and animal abuse. Together, we crafted a bill that will help save lives.”

A literature search of crime reports involving "domestic violence" and "animal cruelty" reveals chilling examples of how often the abuse allegations are linked. And a study of women in one domestic violence center found that 71 percent of women with pets reported their partner threatened, hurt, or even killed their pet. Surveys indicate that between 18 percent and 48 percent of battered women have delayed their decision to leave their batterer or have returned to the batterer out of fear for the welfare of their pets or livestock.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead said, "One of the most dangerous things that can happen to a child is to kill or torture an animal and get away with it." She might have added that, if the child is a psychopath, he will find a way to get away with it.

Criminals may be divided into three rough categories: non-psychopathic, psychotic, and psychopathic. Non-psychopathic criminals may choose a life of crime for a variety of reasons: Because they belong to a juvenile gang, because it's an easy way to make a living, because it's exciting to beat the authorities. Psychotic criminals may commit horrendous offenses because they hear voices of command (paranoid schizophrenia) or because they have a hair-trigger temper (bipolar disorder). An example of someone who was likely a psychotic criminal was David Berkowitz, the "Son of Sam" serial killer who reportedly received orders to kill from his neighbor's dog.

Studies have shown that non-psychopathic criminals do not commit acts of animal cruelty more than the non-criminal population; however, most animal cruelty is committed by the psychopaths.

Our modern concept of psychopathy goes back to 1941, when psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley published his classic monograph, The Mask of Sanity. Cleckley compiled telling case histories from his patients during his tenure at the University of Georgia medical school. Some of the cases detailed in the book are shocking, some sad, some funny. Dr. Cleckley concluded that psychopathy begins at an early age -- six or seven -- and it is almost impervious to remediation.

Cleckley's subjects, whom he saw in a state mental hospital, follow a characteristic trajectory. They are arrested, convicted, sentenced to prison, display such bizarre behavior that they are remanded to the state hospital, whereupon they suddenly become "normal" and achieve a discharge, only to repeat the cycle of criminality. Almost to a man or woman, the psychopaths Dr. Cleckley describes are experts at manipulating the system to their advantage.

Not all -- not even the majority -- of psychopaths are criminals (or else they're getting away with it). Our contemporary knowledge of psychopathy is deftly summed up by Martha Stout, a psychologist at Harvard, in The Sociopath Next Door. Stout identifies two hallmarks of the psychopath/sociopath: Lack of conscience and lack of empathy. Quoting Cleckley, she writes in her book: "Beauty and ugliness, except in a very superficial sense, goodness, evil, love, horror, and humor have no actual meaning, no power to ‘move’ the psychopath. According to Stout, about one person in 25 is a sociopath, which means that you are likely to cross paths with such a person at some point in your lifetime, maybe more than once.

Robert O. Hare in his classic book Without Conscience has also noted the ability of psychopaths to charm the leaves off the trees, and if they happen to be in jail to use their charm and glib façade to deceive the parole board into thinking they are reformed people, gaining early parole. But the truth is, he says, psychopaths are actually poor candidates for rehabilitation.

The states have invested large sums of money in rehabilitation programs for imprisoned psychopaths, but the long-term success of these programs remains to be seen. There is reason to be dubious about the value of these programs, because mounting evidence indicates that psychopaths have abnormal brain structure and/or function. Psychopaths often have abnormal fMRI scans in brain regions that mediate empathy, prosocial behavior, and moral reasoning. Brain scans of psychopaths have exhibited abnormalities in regions that mediate reward and punishment. Psychopaths apparently do not learn from punishment, as Hare found in electroencephalogram studies of subjects performing a punitive task.

It seems, judging from their deviant behavior, psychopaths are hard-wired for psychopathy from as early as the age of five or six. This means that, if any treatment could encourage development away from psychopathy it must be deployed at the age of three or so. Even then, the relentless growth of nerve fibers in the developing child might nullify even the most ingenious program of rehabilitation.

People who work in animal shelters come across the handiwork of psychopaths every day. To find out what they do, we exchanged emails with Franklin D. McMillan, DVM, Director of Well-Being Studies at the Utah-based Best Friends Animals Shelter in Utah, the largest of its kind in the country. Here are some of the things that shelter workers see.

"Physical" Signs of Abuse:

- emaciation from intentional starvation

- bruising and hemorrhage

- burns (from open flame, cigarettes, chemicals)

- scars from old injuries, including but not confined to gunshot wounds

- broken bones

- injury to the ano-genital region from zoophilia or firecrackers

- missing limbs, tail, ears, eyes from wounds or such causes as frostbite

"Mental" Symptoms of Abuse

- increased fear of humans

- increased fear of other animals

- increased aggression toward humans or other animals

- increase in attention-seeking behavior

- excessive barking and excitability

- odd or repetitive behaviors

Sanctuaries differ in their approach to rehabilitation. For example, Dr. McMillan's facility uses prescription antidepressants of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs like Prozac or Zoloft) and tricyclic antidepressants (Elavil, Anafranil) for aggression, anxiety, and panic. The facility also has skilled animal behaviorists who use behavioristic techniques derived from the work of Pavlov, Skinner, and Wolpe to help the animal to overcome its fears and phobias -- not the least of which is its fear of human beings.

Primarily Primates is a shelter operated by Friends of Animals that harbors mostly primates obtained from laboratories when the scientists are finished with them, and some of them are in very poor emotional condition. Many are understandably terrified of humans, even their new-found benefactors at Primarily Primates.

We asked the director, Brooke Chavez, what she and her colleagues do to rehabilitate these damaged creatures. Chavez, who has formidable experience in animal rehabilitation, told us that she and her staff rely mainly on positive reward therapy; the sanctuary rarely uses drugs, but when they do so, their drug of choice is gabapentin (Neurontin). Chavez said, "Love and trust are the best medicine."

Our concept of cruelty has evolved over the years. Public hangings, bull-and-bear baiting, bull fighting, whaling, cock fighting and dog fighting are no longer legal in the United States. Today, only a select few have the privilege of witnessing a condemned person die, sometimes agonizingly slowly, while strapped to a gurney.

We interviewed Madeline Bernstein, President of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) of Los Angeles. Bernstein is a career law enforcement professional, whose experience includes a stint as an Assistant District Attorney in the Bronx at a time when it was a very dangerous place indeed. As she told us, she prosecuted "a little bit of everything," except for homicide, sex crimes and animal cruelty.

We told Bernstein that we were puzzled that Americans spend literally billions of dollar on their pets, yet tolerate feeble laws that let a perpetrator of animal cruelty walk out of court with a slap-on-the-wrist fine. Bernstein explained to us that well-meaning Americans may not realize that, under the law animals are considered property.

The "property" status of animals exists because we claim "that animals have certain 'defects,' such as the inability to use language or a supposedly inferior intelligence, that permit us to treat them instrumentally, as means to our ends," writes animal legal scholar Gary L. Francione. To "disqualify nonhumans from any significant moral concern is a form of discrimination known as speciesism" -- the "use of species to determine membership in the moral community" -- and is "really no different from using other criteria, such as race, sex, sexual orientation, or age," writes Francione.

Still, says Bernstein even with the property constraint, the skilled prosecutor will argue that animals are "sentient beings" -- somewhere between human and non-human beings. To support his argument the prosecutor has a good deal of precedent to draw from, namely a body of case law, i.e., jury verdicts and judges' rulings.

Another reason most states have tepid, inadequately prosecuted laws is that pretty much "anything goes" when it comes to treatment of animals that are not pets whether government-sponsored pest control to support ranchers, the meat industry, or in scientific laboratories.

Our selective attitude toward animal cruelty is seen very clearly in our attitude toward laboratory animals. We were surprised to learn from Bernstein that there is scant legal protection for them from cruelty so long as the experiment is being conducted in accordance with a protocol, that is, a proposal for an experiment that has been approved by an Institutional Review Board. The seldom-enforced Animal Welfare Act sets out minimal requirements for experimenters: use of anesthesia in painful procedures and this only for dogs, cats, and primates, but not to the rest of the animal kingdom. This is not a good time to be a rat or a guinea pig.

Finally, we asked Bernstein about psychopathy and animal cruelty. Certainly, the legal professional recognizes animal cruelty in the early childhood years -- as early as four years old or preschool -- as a predictor of psychopathy along with setting fires and bedwetting, she told us. Psychopaths may be hard-wired for antisocial behavior, but Bernstein thinks there is some hope for a person if he or she is caught early.

A climate of selective indifference to animals may unveil psychopathy, but the evidence that psychopathy is caused by environmental factors is outweighed by biological data. Bernstein thinks that if a child performs acts of animal cruelty by the age of eight, he will become a psychopath, but not necessarily a criminal. Punishment does not apparently deter this progression and remediation must start at an early age and may not be effective. Still, says Bernstein, a perpetrator of acts of cruelty must be gotten off the street with long jail terms. And children, whatever their fate, must learn that, as prosecutor Bernstein put it, "Any kind of gratuitous animal cruelty is wrong."

Psychiatrist and neurologist Frank A. Kulik of Scottsdale, Arizona who we interviewed for this article agrees. "Once children have got into this 'killing business'" it is "very hard to break. I have had patients who have killed neighbors' dogs and cats and I was a failure with these kinds of kids." The cruelty can include "sexual connotations" he added.

But, like Bernstein, Dr. Kulik agrees that childhood compassion education can deter psychopathic behavior in later years. Upbringing must include "early teaching of children to have respect for other human beings and animals."

Robert Wilbur is a psychopharmacologist who also writes semi-popular articles on capital punishment, prison reform and animal rights.

Martha Rosenberg is an investigative reporter and author of the food and drug expose Born with a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks, and Hacks Pimp the Public Health.