Friday, March 19, 2010

101 Dalmations (And Chihuahuas…And Cats….And…)

In the New York Times this week we have a story entitled Animal Abuse as Clue to Additional Cruelties. In this article Ian Urbina discusses the problem of people who hoard animals and the connection between animal abuse and violence toward people.

The link between animal cruelty and antisocial behavior is well known and was first studied in the 1960's by a researcher at Washington University by the name of Lee Robins. Dr. Robins followed the outcomes of children referred to a local mental health center for conduct problems, and learned that about one third of them developed antisocial behavior as adults. This is where we get the current conduct disorder criteria for antisocial personality disorder found in DSM-IV: firesetting, theft, running away, truancy and animal cruelty.

States are passing laws to better identify and track people who hoard or abuse animals, with the idea that people who do this are also likely to be abusing or neglect humans in their households. The laws allow for sharing of information between people who investigate domestic violence or child abuse and people who investigate animal neglect cases. Some states are even passing laws to create registries of animal abusers.

Two parts of this story caught my attention: the registry issue and the idea that neglecting an animal becomes a predicate offense for other investigations. Here in Maryland we're big on registries. We have a sex offender registry and child abuse and neglect registry. We have a law requiring child welfare agencies to compare recent birth certificate information to the child abuse registry, to see if any known child abusers are having more kids. Now maybe we should also check to see if they're adopting pets.

The whole idea of registering and tracking people is a bit uncomfortable for me. Registries don't prevent crime but they can prevent people from getting jobs, buying homes and reintegrating into society after they've served their time. Being on a registry (or not being on one) is not truly reflective of the risk that person poses to society. A demented little old lady found with 200 cats in her basement could end up on the Internet, with the implication that she since she has neglected animals she also abuses children. Registries also don't seem to do much for preventing people from getting access to what makes people truly violent: guns and alcohol. Perhaps we should require liquor stores to check registries before any beer transaction. While we're at it, violence is associated with mental illness, untreated mood disorders and personality disorders. Maybe a registry of psychiatric patients?

Please. Enough. I doubt Dr. Robins ever expected this kind of outcome to her work. The purpose of studies like hers was to identify people at risk, for intervention and treatment, not for prosecution and public censure. I think we need to get back to that original idea.