In Victoria alone, over 65,000 cases of family violence are reported to the police each year. It is not only women who are victims of this violence, children are also victims, either directly or indirectly by being exposed to the abuse.
In environments of family violence, children’s development of concern for others, empathy and remorse is disrupted. Empathy serves as a bridge to the emotional states of others. Humans are a social species for whom perspective taking and concern about others’ distress are central to healthy functioning since they promote interpersonal responsibility and inhibit harmful acts.
Children who lack empathy or concern for others are those most likely to grow into antisocial adults, and to continue the cycle of violence into the next generation. This often begins with the family companion animals since they are small enough for children to abuse. It can then graduate to other children and, in adulthood is likely to include other adults.
Research in several different countries, including Australia, has documented a relationship between family violence, child abuse and animal abuse. Abusive families expose children to abusive and cruel behaviours. Research has shown that children exposed to abuse are more likely to abuse animals compared to children in healthy families.
There is strong agreement between researchers and professionals that there is a “link” between violence toward people and violence toward animals (see: http://nationallinkcoalition.org/ and http://www.depi.vic.gov.au/pets/care-and-welfare/animals-and-people/the-link-between-animal-abuse-and-human-violence). Animal abuse flags the strong likelihood that there are other forms of abuse occurring within the family, including sexual and physical abuse.
Whilst families play a central role in fostering or suppressing the development of empathy and compassion, societal and cultural factors are also important. The aggressive and antisocial behaviours of adults who have compromised empathy and who find pleasure in harming others are reinforced through legalised forms of cruelty, such as hunting or “recreational” shooting.
Killing animals in the form of hunting for purely recreational purposes is no less than a demonstration of compromised empathy and compassion. How could it be otherwise since deriving enjoyment from a behaviour that causes suffering and harm must be devoid of compassion. Suffering is an inevitable part of hunting. There are few quick deaths. For example, however at least one in four waterbirds shot, will not be killed but will die a slow and painful death elsewhere (see: http://www.rspcavic.org/issues-take-action/duck-shooting/).
Legalising cruelty in the form of hunting only further exacerbates aggression and violence in families and in the greater community. It is particularly concerning that in Victoria, children as young as 12 years are encouraged to hunt since for them, confusing messages are communicated when certain cruel and aggressive behaviours are described as “normal” and even as “recreational” or “fun” whilst others are considered crimes and described as animal cruelty.
If governments are serious about curbing family violence, child abuse, and indeed all aggressive and violent behaviour, they will ban legalised forms of aggression and violence such as hunting. Instead, it is recommended that they introduce programs aimed at fostering the development of empathy and compassion such as humane education programs that teach children kindness toward all sentient beings and the environment (e.g., https://teachheart.org/). It is through such interventions that cycles of violence can begin to broken.
Children, Hunting, Animal Cruelty and Violence in Society
Dr Eleonora Gullone is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychology at Monash University. This article is based on her work (see: https://eleonoragullone.wordpress.com/) including her 2012 book: Animal cruelty, Antisocial Behaviour and Aggression: More than a link. Palgrave Macmillan Ltd., Hampshire.