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Animal cruelty linked to violence
Use warning signs to help avert further massacres

A boy put cats and dogs into orange crates and then shot arrows through the slats, injuring or killing the animals inside.

Few people knew his name, Albert DeSalvo. When he grew up, he was better known as the Boston Strangler, as he killed 13 women and terrorized uncounted more during an early-1960s eastern Massachusetts rape and murder spree.Serial killer and rapist Ted Bundy, who was convicted of or claimed responsibility for at least 30 murders in Florida and four other states, gave a similar warning sign. He tortured animals as a teenager before his 1970s crime spree.

Jeffrey Dahmer, himself murdered in prison in 1994, killed and in some cases cannibalized at least 17 people in the Midwest. As a boy, he had strangled neighborhood cats and dogs, nailed frogs to trees, cut open live fish to see their insides and had been avidly fascinated by both in-school dissections and after-school "road kill" dissections.

The horrible specifics vary. But a rogues' gallery of other infamous serial killers, from David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz to Charles "Helter Skelter" Manson to Henry Lee Lucas, generally have comparable biographies with respect to the animal abuse-human violence connection.

The bizarre school shootings between 1997 and 1999 -- in Pearl, Miss.; West Paducah, Ky.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Springfield, Ore.; Littleton, Colo.; and Conyers, Ga. -- also fit into a similar mold. Previous to their headline-grabbing gunfire, the boys involved had, variously, boasted about shooting dogs with a .22-caliber rifle, throwing a cat into a bonfire, torturing a dog to death, and blowing up a cow, squirrels and cats, among other outrages.

For decades, law-enforcement officers and psychiatrists have noted a consistent pattern: violent criminals "start out" by tormenting, maiming and killing companion animals, wild animals or farmed animals. As FBI Special Agent Alan Brantly testified to a House panel in May 1998, "Some offenders kill animals as a rehearsal for targeting human victims and may kill or torture animals because, to them, the animals symbolically represent people." The FBI has recognized the link since the 1970s, when agents analyzed in detail the life histories of various imprisoned serial killers, searching for patterns.

This critical warning sign can help us avert another Littleton-type massacre. Unfortunately, parents, schools and even law-enforcement officers often overlook it until it is too late.

The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders only recently listed animal cruelty as a key symptom of "conduct disorder." Many mental health professionals are just now becoming more fully aware of such stark facts.

Not every case makes front-page headlines. The animal abuse-human violence link occurs in many lower-profile variations: single homicides, spouse abuse, child abuse, elder abuse and other mayhem. A 1980 English review of the animal-cruelty case histories of 23 families found child abuse or neglect has also taken place in more than four out of five of those families. A 1983 New Jersey study of 57 families echoed those findings.

It is time to put this knowledge to work before another tragedy occurs.

Encouragingly, a recent American Psychological Association poll found that 71 percent of young people expressed a desire to learn about such warning signs. After all, most children naturally feel kindly toward animals, an attitude that all too often gets discarded along the way as overly sentimental.

We should be doing whatever possible to instill compassionate values and the ability to empathize with others. For kids, that means animals. Here are some ideas:

-- Humane education programs for public, private, parochial and home-schooled students must be made a priority, beginning even at the preschool level, by federal, state and local officials. These programs do more than teach children to inhibit aggression. They help point out those who cannot.

-- Counseling sessions should be required for prospective companion-animal adopters, to screen out potentially abusive homes.

-- Animal cruelty must be taken as a serious crime, and a sign of things to come. But it remains a misdemeanor in more than half the 50 states and neglected by prosecutors who are busy cleaning up the human abuse that follows.

-- Extended counseling must be mandatory for anyone convicted of animal cruelty, a step California's governor signed into law there in September.

If such steps get taken, the societal benefits would extend far beyond an improved lot for our animal friends. The sooner we start, the better chance we have of averting more tragedies.

Psychiatrist Neal D. Barnard, M.D., founded the Washington, D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in 1985. A.R. Hogan is a Maryland-based science writer.