Blog Archives

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.

Cruel proof: A brief overview of zoosadism

Zoosadism refers to the pleasure – often sexual – that individuals attain by causing sadistic cruelty to animals. In many people’s minds, violence towards the animal is often automatically implied when they think of bestial acts. However, as I pointed out in a previous blog, recent academic research indicates that sex with animals by zoophiles is often considered by them as “sensual and loving” and does not necessarily include force, violence and/or sadism. In fact, in her book Love, Violence, and Sexuality in Relationships between Humans and Animals, Dr. Andrea Beetz said that: “zoophilia itself does not represent a clinically significant problem and is not necessarily combined with other clinically significant problems and disorders, even if it may be difficult for some professionals to accept this”.

Despite such research, links between sadistic sexual acts with animals and subsequent behaviour such as human sexual sadism and sexual murder has been much researched. Those who inflict pain and suffering on animals are more likely than those who don’t to be violent towards humans. It has been well documented that some rapists and murderers have sadistically hurt and/or killed animals in their childhood, and that some have engaged in bestial acts. Furthermore, some studies have shown that around a third to a half of all sexual murderers have abused animals during childhood and/or adolescence (although sample sizes of such 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. In a study of psychiatric patients who tortured cats and dogs published in Child Psychiatry and Human Development by Alan Felthous, he reported that all of them had high levels of aggression toward people including one patient who had murdered a boy.

In Dr. Louis Schlesinger’s 2004 book Sexual Murder, he provided in great detail some particularly gruesome stories of compulsive homicide killers. One such case was Peter Kürten, who terrified Düsseldorf, Germany.

“At age nine, Kürten committed his first murder by throwing a boy off a raft and preventing another youngster from rescuing the child. Kürten was also a thief and a burglar, and he spent a number of years in prison for assorted offenses. While there, he poisoned several inmates in the prison hospital. After his release, the offender attacked 29 people and killed several others including a 5-year-old girl. He also broke into the home of a 13-year- old girl, strangled her, and killed her by cutting her throat with a knife… Until he was apprehended, the compulsion to kill became overwhelming. Kürten attacked men, women, and children, killing them by knifing, choking, and cutting their throats”.

Kürten’s background was also disturbing. As Schlesinger wrote:

“Kürten had sex with his sisters; however, his preferred form of sexual activity in his developing years was bestiality. He became friendly with a dog catcher who taught him how to torture and masturbate animals. From ages 13 through 15 he engaged in numerous sexual acts with pigs, sheep, and goats, sometimes stabbing the animals to death while having intercourse with them”.

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 (Institut für Pathologie der Tierärztlichen Hochschule, Hannover) 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. Also in 2002, Dr. Alexandra Schedel-Stupperich (Georg Elias Müller Institute for Psychology, Göttingen) examined all the incidents of horse injuries from 1993 to 2000 (of which there were 1,035). One-quarter of all the injuries (mostly cuts and stabs using knives or spears) involved the horses’ genitals and another quarter involved injuries to the horses’ necks and/or heads. Most of the horses injured were female and which Schedel-Stupperich described as rape.

Another German study by Wochner and Klosinski (University of Tübingen, Germany), examined 1502 aggressive children and adolescents requiring treatment at their Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Unit. They reported that 25 (all boys) of them had engaged in zoosadistic activities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the incidence of zoosadistic acts increased with age. The authors speculated that the zoosadistic acts may have been connected to problems of puberty and proving virility.

A recent 2011 paper by Dr Anil Aggrawal (Maulana Azad Medical College, New Delhi, India) in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine proposed a new classification of zoophilia including ‘sadistic bestials’ and ‘homocidal bestials’. Unsurprisingly, ‘sadistic bestials’ derive sexual pleasure from the torturing of animal. According to Dr. Aggrawal, sadistic bestials use animals for sexual excitement but do not engage in sexual intercourse with them. Dr Aggrawal defined homocidal bestials as zoophiles that need to kill animals in order to have sexual intercourse with it (i.e., what he also described as necrozoophilia). According to Aggrawal, homicidal bestials are capable of having sexual intercourse with live animals, but their need for sexual intercourse with dead animals is greater.

In a 2006 book chapter on paraphilic crime signatures, Hickey reported that the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer (1960-1994) collected animal roadkill, dissected the remains, and masturbated over the animals he had cut up, because he “found the glistening viscera of animals sexually arousing”. In Schlesinger’s book on sexual murder, it was reported that: “Dahmer dissected roadkill, butchered small animals, nailed cats and frogs to trees behind his house, and once put a dog’s head on a stick”. Aggrawal also reported the case of 20-year old Bryan Hathaway from Minnesota (USA) who was arrested for having sex with a deer carcass. He had been cycling and by chance came across the dead deer. He was later charged with violating a law against “sexual gratification with an animal” and fits Aggrawal’s classification as a necrozoophile (although Hathaway didn’t actually kill the animal himself).

Finally – and as I noted in my previous blog on zoophilia – there have also been papers and editorials published in the Veterinary Journal (VJ) about the violent sexual abuse of female calves. Vets – who often have to deal with the animals that have been sexually abused by humans – do not like the term ‘zoophilia’ as it tends to focus on the human perpetrator, with no attention being paid to the harm that might result for the animal. A 2006 editorial in the VJ claimed that the sexual abuse of animals is almost a last taboo – even to the veterinary profession. As Piers Beirne (University of Southern Maine, USA) argues, the sexual abuse of an animal should be understood as sexual assault because: (i) human–animal sexual relations almost always involve coercion; (ii) such practices often cause pain and even death to the animal; and (iii) animals are unable either to communicate consent to us in a form that we can readily understand, or to speak out about their cause.

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

Further reading

Aggrawal, A. (2011). A new classification of zoophilia. Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, 18, 73-78.

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., 1997. Rethinking bestiality: towards a concept of interspecies sexual assault. Theoretical Criminology, 1, 317–340.

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

Hickey, E.W (2006). Paraphilia and signatures in crime scene investigation. In Hickey, E.W. (Ed.), Sex crimes and Paraphilia (pp.95-107). New Jersey: Pearson

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.

Schlesinger, L. (2004). Sexual Murder. New York: CRC Press.

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.