Animal cruelty: the gateway crime?

Note: This post was originally written in 2013. At the time, I was editor and reporter at the Macon County Times, which published the story referenced.

By Tilly Dillehay

Photo courtesy of the Macon County Times

A few weeks ago, my newspaper reported on a local animal cruelty arrest. A photo of a dog, which had allegedly been malnourished and left in an unheated shed during the coldest days of the winter, was included. The dog had been found frozen to the floor of the shed.

The online version of this story went viral, eventually getting about 255,000 hits from all over the US. An animal rights group up north started a petition, asking the judge involved with the case to see that justice was done. I got numerous emails from people, asking for contact information for the judge. We had dozens upon dozens of outraged comments on our website.
All of them called for justice, many using violent terms themselves to describe the way the person responsible should be treated.
I was a little flabbergasted by all of this.
After all, we have reported about a lot of terrible things that people do to each other: child abuse, drug trafficking, rape and murder. But none of those stories had gone so far so fast in the cyberworld. This one—an admittedly awful case of animal cruelty—was the story that brought an avalanche of emotional, livid responses.
I decided to do a little reading about this issue, because it is clearly something I don’t understand well. I’ve never seen animals abused before. I don’t really know what motivates underground dogfighting or cockfighting rings. I haven’t even owned a pet in some time (although as a child, I had a reputation as an animal lover and was often called “Ellie-Mae” by my parents… yes, that’s a nod to The Beverly Hillbillies).
But a comment by one of the local animal control officers also sparked my interest. He mentioned, offhandedly, that animal cruelty has been “linked to other criminal activity.”
Turns out, he was right.
They didn’t start doing studies on this issue until the 70s, 80s, and 90s. But in those decades, dozens of studies came out with the following claims (courtesy of the Animal Legal Defense Fund):
  • In homes where serious animal abuse has occurred, there may be an increased probability that some other type of family violence is also happening.
  • Threats of or actual abuse of a companion animal may be used to intimidate, coerce, or control women and children to remain in and/or be silent about their abusive situation, out of concern for the safety of their pet.
  • If a child is cruel to animals it may be a sign that serious abuse or neglect has been inflicted on the child; children who witness animal abuse are at greater risk of becoming abusers themselves.
  • If a child exhibits aggressive or sexualized behavior toward animals it may be associated with later abuse of humans, unless the behavior is recognized and stopped.
  • Violent offenders incarcerated in maximum‐security prisons are significantly more likely than nonviolent offenders to have committed childhood acts of cruelty toward pets.
  • A study undertaken by the MSPCA and Northeastern University found that 70 percent of people who committed violent crimes against animals also had records for other crimes. Compared with a control group of their neighbors, animal abusers were five times more likely to commit violent crimes against people, four times more likely to commit property crimes, and three times more likely to have a record for drug or disorderly‐conduct offenses.
Animal cruelty is serious, yes. It’s serious because human beings were created to be stewards of creation, not abusers. It’s serious because life is something to treasure, not something to destroy.
Photo by Patrick Carr on Unsplash

But in case the idea of ‘animal rights’ is still vaguely associated with PETA nonsense in your mind, consider the above points, and then consider something else: this is not a new issue.

People have written on animal cruelty long before now. In his essay “Our Duty to Brutes” (i.e. animals), Francis Wayland wrote, “There can be no clearer indication of a degraded and ferocious temper, than cruelty to animals.”  And John Dagg argued that “He who tortures flies for amusement is preparing himself, if he should obtain power over human lives, to sacrifice them to his fiendish pleasure.” 

Both of these pieces were written in the 1800s, long before PETA. Both of the authors were Christian theologians, and both of them call on the authority of something outside of themselves to argue for man’s obligation to treat “brutes” well: the Bible.
Proverbs 12:10 makes this principal terribly clear: “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.”
So you have my permission, political conservative, to take this seriously. If a person is cruel to an animal, it seems to be well documented that they are also cruel to men, women, and children.
Cruelty is like a snowball; it builds on itself, and is never content to stay the same shape and size.


[The brief (one page long) essays on the treatment of animals by Francis Wayland and John Dagg may be read here:
and here ]
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