There’s a technique frequently used in Hollywood during character introductions in movies and TV shows to subtly inform the audience as to whether that character is a “good guy” or a villain: depict how they act around animals. If the character is shown being kind and loving to their pet, we trust and empathize with them; if the character is mean to animals, we know not to trust them. One of the most poignant examples is in the opening scene of the Netflix series House of Cards, during which Frank Underwood rushes to the aid of a dog that has just been struck by a car, and, while talking directly to the camera, calmly chokes the dog to death. (Not pictured, of course.) We immediately know from this scene that we’re looking at an extremely dangerous man.
This storytelling technique works because we instinctively understand that there is a connection between how someone treats animals and how they will treat humans. As it turns out, it’s more than just a feeling. Numerous studies have indeed confirmed a link between cruelty to animals and domestic violence. In one study of women in abusive relationships who had pets, 89 percent of them reported their violent partner harmed or killed their pet, as well. In another, 88 percent of homes where child abuse was being investigated also showed signs of animal abuse. A third study concluded that people who are cruel to animals are five times more likely to harm other humans.
In short, many authorities and domestic violence advocates now confidently state that if someone is abusive toward animals, it’s an indicator that they either have been or will be prone to committing acts of domestic violence. Let’s explore this connection in a bit more detail to see what we can learn.
How Are Animal Cruelty and Domestic Violence Connected?
To be clear from the outset, some acts of domestic violence are impulsive (for example, an argument that got out of hand), and not every act of domestic violence is an indicator that the person will be cruel to animals, or vice versa. In most cases where these two issues are linked, it is part of an established pattern of abuse, not a misunderstanding or a one-time incident. When there is a pattern, then quite often, animal cruelty and domestic abuse will coexist in the home. The primary reason is that the propensity for abuse of an animal and abuse of a domestic partner (or child) comes from essentially the same place internally. Here are some ways in which the two are connected:
- First, both involve a sense of power and control. Abusing an animal is a way for the abuser to feel powerful and in control over another living being. This need for power and control often extends to human relationships as well, leading to domestic violence.
- Second, both animal cruelty and domestic violence tend to be learned behaviors. Children who witness animal abuse are more likely to grow up to be abusers themselves, whether of animals or humans. This is because they learn that it’s acceptable to use violence to control others.
- Third, both animal cruelty and domestic violence involve a lack of empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Those who abuse animals typically have a hard time empathizing with them, seeing them as nothing more than objects. This lack of empathy often extends to human relationships as well, making it difficult for the abuser to see their partner as a human being with feelings and needs of their own.
Animal Cruelty, Domestic Violence, and California Law
So distinctive is the link between animal cruelty and domestic abuse that many states are now taking the connection into account in the laws they make and the way they prosecute cases. In some states, animal cruelty is even legally considered a form of domestic violence. Here in California, the law doesn’t go as far as to define animal cruelty as domestic violence (although both are illegal), but it does confirm the connection between them in two important ways:
First–Along with many other states, California allows for protective orders that include pets. It’s a common issue in domestic violence situations where the partner may want to leave the relationship but is afraid to leave the family dog or cat behind because their abuser may turn their anger toward the pet. For this reason, California allows for restraining orders to protect pets as well as domestic abuse victims, giving victims permission to remove the pet from the home and/or legally bar the abuser from contact with the pet.
Second–Prosecutors are allowed to argue that acts of animal cruelty constitute “prior bad acts” to establish a pattern of abuse. While animal cruelty is not definitively recognized as a “prior bad act” in California, prosecutors can still use it as context to show that a defendant was capable of committing, or likely committed, domestic violence. (In other words, if you’re accused of domestic violence and there is evidence that you have shown cruelty to animals in the past, prosecutors may try to use it against you to convince the judge/jury of your probable guilt.)
What Does This Mean for Defendants?
If you’ve recently been arrested and charged with domestic violence, you may have some apprehension about whether this also means you’re likely to abuse a pet, or whether prior incidents of animal abuse could work against you. Conversely, if you’ve ever lost your temper with a family pet, you may worry that this means you’re capable of domestic violence at some point.
To address the last issue first—remember, the main link between animal cruelty and domestic violence is about established patterns of abuse, not isolated incidents. A single incident in either case is not a predictor of your future behavior. However, in light of the increasingly recognized connection between animal cruelty and domestic violence, you should be aware of two things if you are facing charges:
- Don’t be surprised if the family pet is included in a protective order (if one is issued against you); and
- Be prepared for any prior incidents of animal cruelty to be potentially used against you in court—even if the animal cruelty did not directly involve the victim of the domestic abuse allegations.
If you are facing domestic violence charges, it’s important to have compassionate legal counsel on your side to make sure any issues regarding your treatment of animals aren’t used unjustly against you. Call our offices today for an appointment.