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The beast inside: The psychology of animal torture

A few days ago, I was interviewed by the Irish newspaper The Journal about someone deliberately trying to poison a dog by throwing three rat poison-stuffed chorizo sausages into Linda O’Byrne’s garden. But what typically possesses anyone to inflict such acts of intentional animal torture and cruelty (IATC)? In this particular case it may have been done as an act of revenge or as a way to shock O’Byrne to the amusement of the person who did it.

In addition to these reasons, rhere are many types of IATC including individuals that do it (i) as a religious ritual sacrifice, (ii) as an ‘artistic’ sacrifice (e.g., killing animals in films such as the controversial Cannibal Holocaust), (iii) because they have psychological disorders (such as anti-social/psychopathic personality disorders and engage in deliberate acts of zoosadism), and/or (iv) because they have sexually paraphilic disorders (such as crush fetishism in which small animals are crushed for sexual pleasure). Additionally, there is some research showing that in some circumstances, IATC is sometimes used to coerce, control and intimidate women and/or children to be silent about domestic abuse within the home. Although any animal torture is shocking, arguably the most disturbing type of IATC is that which occurs amongst those with anti-social personality disorders.

When the science of behavioural profiling began to emerge in the 1970s, one of the most consistent findings reported by the FBI profiling unit was that childhood IATC appeared to be a common behaviour among serial murderers and rapists (i.e., those with psychopathic traits characterized by impulsivity, selfishness, and lack of remorse). Many notorious serial killers – such as Jeffrey Dahmer – began by torturing and killing animals in their childhood. Dahmer also collected animal roadkill, dissected the remains, and masturbated over the animals he had cut up. Other killers known to have engaged in childhood IATC include child murderer Mary Bell (who throttled pigeons), Jamie Bulger’s murderer Robert Thompson who (who was cruel to household pets), and Moors murderer Ian Brady (who abused animals).

IATC is one of the three adolescent behaviours in what is often referred to the ‘Homicidal Triad’ (the other two being persistent bedwetting and obsessive fire-setting). Some criminologists and psychologists believe that the combination of two or more of these three behaviours increases the risk of homicidal behaviour in adult life. However, scientific evidence for this has been mixed. There has also been research into some of the contributory factors as to why a minority of children engage in IATC. Research has shown that the behaviours in the ‘Homicidal Triad’ (including IATC) are often associated with parental abuse, parental brutality (and witnessing domestic violence), and/or parental neglect.

A number of criminological studies have shown that around a third to a half of all sexual murderers have abused animals during childhood and/or adolescence (although I ought to add that sample sizes in most of these published studies are usually relatively small). However, most research has reported that one of the most important ‘warning signs’ and risk factors (specifically relating to the propensity for sex offending), is animal cruelty if accompanied by a sexual interest in animals. Other researchers have speculated that the zoosadistic acts among male adolescents may be connected to problems of puberty and proving virility.

Another ‘triad’ of psychological factors that have been associated with IATC are three specific characteristics of personality – Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy (the so-called ‘Dark Triad’). Studies carried out by Dr. Phillip Kavanagh and his colleagues have examined the relationship between the three Dark Triad personality traits and attitudes towards animal abuse and self-reported acts of animal cruelty. They found that the psychopathy trait is related to intentionally hurting or torturing animals, and was also a composite measure of all three Dark Triad traits.

In Germany, there have been an increasing number of violent crimes against horses. This offence of ‘horse ripping’ (i.e., violently cutting, slashing and/or stabbing of horses) has been accepted as a criminal phenomenon in Germany and has led to a number of studies on the topic. Horse ripping has been defined as a destructive act “with the aim to harm a horse or the acceptance of a possible injury of a horse, especially killing, maltreatment, mutilation and sexual abuse in sadomasochistic context”. In 2002, German researchers Dr, Claus Bartmann and Dr. Peter Wohlsein reported a study examining 193 traumatic horse injuries over a four-year period. They reported that at least ten of the injuries (including wounds from knives, spears, and guns) were acts of zoosadism.

There is no easy solution to childhood IATC. Given that most children learn anti-social behaviour from those around them, the best way to prevent it is teaching by example. Here, parents are the key. Pro-social behaviour by parents and other role models towards animals (such as rescuing spiders in the bath, feeding birds, treating pets as a member of the family) has the potential to make a positive lasting impression on children.

Note: A version of this article was first published in The Independent.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Arluke, A., Levin, J., Luke, C., & Ascione, F. (1999). The relationship of animal abuse to violence and other forms of antisocial behavior. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 14(9), 963-975.

Bartmann, C.P. & Wohlsein, P. (2002). Injuries caused by outside violence with forensic importance in horses. Dtsch Tierarztl Wochenschr, 109, 112-115.

Beetz, Andrea (2002). Love, Violence, and Sexuality in Relationships between Humans and Animals. Germany: Shaker Verlag.

Beirne, P. (1999). For a nonspeciesist criminology: Animal abuse as an object of study. Criminology, 37(1), 117-148.

Felthous, A.R. (1980). Aggression against cats, dogs, and people. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 10, 169-177.

Furnham, A., Richards, S. C., & Paulhus, D. L. (2013). The Dark Triad of personality: A 10 year review. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(3), 199-216.

Hickey, E. W. (2013). Serial murderers and their victims. Cengage Learning.

James, S., Kavanagh, P. S., Jonason, P. K., Chonody, J. M., & Scrutton, H. E. (2014). The Dark Triad, schadenfreude, and sensational interests: Dark personalities, dark emotions, and dark behaviors. Personality and Individual Differences, 68, 211-216.

Jonason, P. K., & Kavanagh, P. (2010). The dark side of love: Love styles and the Dark Triad. Personality and Individual Differences, 49(6), 606-610.

Kavanagh, P. S., Signal, T. D., & Taylor, N. (2013). The Dark Triad and animal cruelty: Dark personalities, dark attitudes, and dark behaviors. Personality and Individual Differences, 55(6), 666-670.

Macdonald, J.M. (1963). The threat to kill. American Journal of Psychiatry, 120, 125-130.

Patterson‐Kane, E. G., & Piper, H. (2009). Animal abuse as a sentinel for human violence: A critique. Journal of Social Issues, 65(3), 589-614.

Ressler, R., Burgess, A., & Douglas, J. (1988). Sexual homicide: Patterns and motives. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Schedel-Stupperich, A. (2002). [Criminal acts against horses – phenomenology and psychosocial construct]. Dtsch Tierarztl Wochenschr, 109, 116-119.

Wochner, M. & Klosinski, G. (1988). Child and adolescent psychiatry aspects of animal abuse (a comparison with aggressive patients in child and adolescent psychiatry). Schweiz Arch Neurol Psychiatry, 139(3), 59-67.

Flaming desire: A beginner’s guide to pyrophilia

Pyrophilia (also known as pyrolagnia and sexual arson) is a sexual paraphilia in which a person derives sexual arousal from fire and/or fire-starting activity. It is sometimes confused with pyromania but pyromaniacs do not get any sexual pleasure when they start fires. Most of what is known academically comes from case studies published in the academic and clinical literature. Writings dating back to the 19th century have suggested that psychosexual factors may sometiems play a role in pyromaniac activities. Pyrophilia is thought to be very rare and there are no incidence or prevalence studies on the condition. Even in major texts on sexual paraphilias such as Richard Laws and William O’Donohue’s Sexual Deviance: Theory, Assessment and Treatment (2008) it is not even mentioned, and in Anil Aggrawal’s Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices (2009) it is only given ten lines (and much of that is taken up with the speculation that the Roman Emperor Nero was a possible pyrophiliac).

A 1989 paper by Dr. Vernon Quinsey and colleagues in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry examined arsonists and sexual arousal to fire setting. They wanted to further explore to what extent pyromania was sexually related. They measured and compared the penile responses of 26 arsonists and 15 non-arsonists to audio taped narratives. The narratives were categorized as (i) neutral, (ii) heterosexual activity, and (iii) fire setting motivated by (a) sexual excitement, (b) general (unspecified) excitement, (c) insurance, (d) revenge, (e) heroism, and (f) power. Penile responses to all categories were of small although both the heterosexual activity and the sexual excitement fire setting categories produced more erectile activity than the neutral category. However, Quinsey and colleagues reported there were no significant differences between the arsonists and non-arsonists to any of the story categories. They argued that their data demonstrated no support for the idea that sexual motivation is commonly involved in arson.

In 1979, the psychotherapist Dr D. Cox stated that, having set a fire, the fire fetishist “will claim that he has had his best ever orgasm as he watched the flames leap up” (although the claim was unsubstantiated by anything else in the book chapter). Dr. Stephen Lande arguably published the first case study of a pyrophiliac in a 1980 issue of the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. Lande reported the case of a 20-year-old male with a history of arson associated with masturbation as his sole means of obtaining sexual arousal and gratification. Physiological and subjective measures of sexual arousal were taken while he looked at various photographs. The man was most sexually aroused by those involving fire with lesser sexual arousal when looking at photographs of naked females. He was treated using orgasmic reconditioning to increase heterosexual arousal and covert sensitization to decrease arousal related to fire. At the end of treatment, sexual arousal was greater for heterosexual than for fire stimuli.

In 1987, Dr Dominique Bourget and Dr John Bradford reported two cases pyrophilia in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. Their two cases were both adult male arsonists whose intense interest in fire was sexually fetishistic. However, these cases concentrated more on their treatment than the psychological motivations behind such an activity.

In a 1999 issue of the Canadian Psychological Association Bulletin, Dr Larry Litman reported the case of a married 25-year old male pyrophiliac. He voluntarily referred himself for a psychological assessment (at the request of his wife) as a consequence of psychopathology and sexually motivated fire-setting activities. (However, he himself didn’t see his sexually motivated fire setting as a problem). He would set fire to anything at hand when the urge struck him (e.g., paper, clothing, etc.). He reported that for as long as he could remember he had been sexually aroused by fire and had a frequent irresistible compulsive urge to set fires. He recalled that his fascination with fire may have started when helping his mother to shovel lot coal and touching it to see how hot it was. He had also burned himself by accident on a number of occasions. He told Litman that he was “used to pain” as his father had regularly physically abused him when he was a child. Litman reported that:

“He used heat to give himself sexual excitement, and he reached a point where he could be sexually aroused by just talking about fires or having his wife talk about burning things (she reportedly resented having to do this)…The patient’s penile tumescence in response to audiotaped scenarios based on his self-reported sexually arousing fantasies of heat and fire (which I asked him to transcribe) was physiologically assessed via phallometry. Despite his self-reported attempts to not become sexually aroused by the scenarios (as a result of being anxious about the procedure), substantial psychophysiological sexual arousal in response to masochistic sexual scenarios of being forcibly and painfully set on fire by a heterosexual partner or by a mob of sadistic people and subsequent combined intense feelings of love, peace, warmth, pain, and sexual excitement was observed…[He] appeared to be suffering from a longstanding pyrophilic disorder with sexual masochistic features in a personality that revolved around hysteric, obsessive–compulsive, and masochistic dynamics”.

Litman reported that the man had actually engaging in behaviours designed to induce pain with fire for sexual stimulation (including sitting on a hot stove, and wrapping a pair of trousers around his arm and setting fire to them). His anti-depressant medicine helped reduce his thoughts about fire setting but stopped taking it due to other side-effects. His wife subsequently left him because of his sexual fascination with fire.

In a 2002 issue of the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, Dr. Krishna Balachandra, and Dr. Swaminath described the what they believe is the only case in the literature of a female arsonist (a 29-year old heterosexual woman) with a fire fetishism. The case history revealed she had been sexually abused at the age of 8 years, and that during adolescence she had been cruel to animals, and began setting small fires. She used to scout for places to set fires and focused on setting fire to bins and recycling containers. No-one was ever hurt or burned as a result of the arson. She would hide, watch the fire, and then go home and masturbate (while thinking about the fire she had just started). She also kept a detailed diary of every fire she had started. The behaviour escalated and she had started over 175 fires by the time she received psychiatric help. The authors reported:

“The motives were described as an outlet for anger, sexual motivation and satisfaction, and an intense preoccupation with fire, together with tension and affective arousal that was relieved by setting fires. There was no correlation between the fires and her menstrual cycle or substance abuse”.

These cases studies (when taken together) suggest that pyrophilia doesn’t appear to include behaviours commonly associated with pyromania (such as watching neighbourhood fires, setting off false fire alarms, getting non-sexual satisfaction from being around those who work in the fire services, starting fires to be affiliated with the fire services, showing indifference to human life and property after setting fire to something. It also appears that sexual arousal may not always depend on an actual fire as it may also be facilitated by photographs and verbal stories about fire and/or arson. While seemingly rare, case studies show that pyrophilia is a real and bone fide clinical entity.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Balachandra, K. & Swaminath, S. (2002). Fire fetishism in a female Aasonist? Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 47,

Bourget, D. & Bradford, J.M.W (1987). Fire fetishism, diagnostic and clinical implications: A review of two cases. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 32, 459-462.

Cox, M. (1979). Dynamic psychotherapy with sex-offenders. In I. Rosen (Ed.), Sexual Deviation (pp. 306-350). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Laws, D.R. & O’Donohue, W.T. (2008), Sexual Deviance: Theory, Assessment and Treatment (Second Edition). New York: Guildford Press.

Litman, L.C.  (1999). A case of pyrophilia. Canadian Psychological Association Bulletin, February, 18-20.

Quinsey, V.L., Chaplin, T.C. & Upfold, D. (1989). Arsonists and sexual arousal to fire setting: Correlation unsupported, Canadian Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 20, 203-209.