24 years we’ve been doing this 16 Days of Activism for no Violence against Women and Children thing, and honestly, what have we achieved?
We keep doing the same things over and over again: the posters, the parties, the ministerial junkets.
It’s pretty evident, as the violence stats rise, that those aren’t effective things to do. We have to get at the root causes, the foundations, the reasons why we have such a violence-prone nation.
Read: The global state of violence against women in 2015
So I have a new suggestion for the South African Police Service, the justice system, civil society, old Uncle Tom Cobley and all: crack down hard on cruelty to animals.
I’m being dead practical here. If we want a society that’s safe for the vulnerable, we need to deal with factors which are proven to have a brutalising impact, which are scientifically proven to promote violent behaviour. And cruelty to animals is one crucial, foundational factor.
A link between animal cruelty and human violence?
There’s a huge amount of research linking early cruelty to animals with later violent behaviour towards people.
“Animal abuse is often the first sign of serious disturbance among adolescent and adult killers,” wrote Dr Gail Melson in Psychology Today, 20 February 2013, noting that Jeffrey Dahmer, the Boston Strangler, David Berkowitz (the Son of Sam) and other multiple killers had all listed animal torture as their first acts of violence.
“When counsellors at several federal penitentiaries evaluated inmates for levels of aggression, 70% of the most violent prisoners had serious and repeated animal abuse in their childhood histories, as compared to 6% of nonaggressive prisoners in the same facilities.”
Recently, a nasty little 15 seconds or so of video footage started doing the rounds in South Africa. It shows a veld scene (somewhere just outside Krugersdorp, rumour has it): there’s a jackal with its leg caught in a gin trap, wildly trying to escape. A young man (or he could be a tall teenager) is heard speaking Afrikaans, saying gleefully, in a teasing tone: “There he is, he’s waiting for me…” The jackal wails, a chilling sound. Then the man surges forwards and bashes the jackal’s head in with a spade. A girl is heard saying, “Ag shame, man.”
That, ladies and gentlemen, is a psychopath in the making, a clear and present danger to women and children and vulnerable people. Not because he kills an animal – and I do understand that for many, jackal are seen as vermin, although it is surely time to put that idea to rest – but because he takes pleasure in the animal’s terror and pain, he takes pleasure in the killing.
Read: The habit of killing
I find it very easy to imagine that young jackal-killer turning his vicious hand against his girlfriend: torture of animals is also closely linked to abuse of women: “Evidence from women using refuges and domestic violence shelters suggests animal cruelty may accompany and therefore serve as a risk marker for domestic violence. Abused women have been found to be 15 times more likely to report their partners had harmed or threatened to harm their pets than a comparison group of non-abused women.” (Domestic Violence: A Literature Review, Mary Barnish 2004)
Birthplace of violence
In recent weeks, I’ve been documenting the work of Community Led Animal Welfare (CLAW), an animal welfare NGO working in townships around Johannesburg where violence is endemic.
“There was a woman’s body lying over there yesterday,” one of the CLAW staff tells me, pointing to a piece of abandoned land in Durban Deep. “Their daughter was burnt to death by her boyfriend,” CLAW director Cora Bailey explains as she hands over a food parcel to a middle-aged couple.
In tandem with violence, specifically violence against women, dog-fighting is rife here too. We in our comfortable suburban cocoons may not be aware of this, but it has become epidemic in Gauteng townships, with a brutality that is unique, according to Wendy Wilson of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA).
Concerned community members in certain townships approached CLAW to facilitate the gathering of evidence. Five men were arrested by the SAPS and NSPCA (eight dogs were confiscated, many brutally injured).
During the lead-up to the arrests, I saw some of the video footage that was used to identify the fighters and their dogs.
Even people without a single bunny-hugger gene would be appalled by what I saw; but they should worry for other reasons, too. Dog-fighting is closely linked to criminality, both overseas and here. Gambling, gangsterism, drug-dealing – and of course other crimes of violence, power and control – such as violence against women and children. Dog-fighters become acclimatised to violence; they become accustomed to using violence for entertainment; they become desensitised to the pain of others; their capacity for empathy is damaged; they become brutalised.
The results? Not only are young boys and men engaged in this counter-culture likely to become particularly violent criminals; they are also very likely to abuse, assault and rape women.
The children – our future?
And the children; what about the mental health of the children exposed to such bloody activities?
Yesterday, I rode with a CLAW team which had been called in by the SPCA to capture a monkey trying to make his way through areas now settled with people. This, says CLAW director Cora Bailey, is common at this time of year: the monkey troops kick out young males to find a new troop, a tactic which prevents incest. Baboons do this, too.
The young males head away from the safety of their birth troop – only to find that distant lands are now full of people who are viciously hostile to the small primates, as they believe them to be evidence of witchcraft. Usually, even when faced with a screaming mob, CLAW is able to trap the monkey; this time they were too late. He’d been beaten to death and his body burnt in a nearby veld. Looking at streets teeming with little children, Bailey sighed and muttered, “The children saw that.”
She’s right to be concerned: “Peer-reviewed studies document the toxic impact of exposure to violence, including violence to animals, as an Adverse Childhood Experience with long-term effects on the developing brain and subsequent poor health outcomes,” writes Professor Barbara Boat in Understanding the Link between Violence to Animals and People: A Guidebook for Criminal Justice Professionals (Allie Phillips, 2014).
Some may turn to violence themselves later; others could still suffer silent long-term consequences: “…adverse experiences like violence exposure can lead to hidden physical alterations inside a child’s body, alterations which may have adverse effects on life-long health.” (Childhood exposure to violence and lifelong health, Terrie E. Moffitt, Dev Psychopathol. November 2013)
So you really want to reduce the levels of violence against women and children in South Africa? Forget the official shindigs, the back-patting PR events, the beautiful posters, and use the money to put some serious law-enforcement muscle behind tackling cruelty towards animals.
Stop telling us about your sympathy for rape victims, politicos and schlebs, and start sending the message that torturing and killing animals is unacceptable. It’s only one part of the solution – and like anything effective, it will take effort, commitment and time, lots of time, to have an impact. But it’s this kind of action we need to take if we really want to start having an impact on the stats.
As Dr Melson writes, “When we keep animals safe from harm, we also help keep children and adults safe.”
Subtle signs of domestic violence
Should hunting in Africa be banned?
Why South Africa can be accused of hating its young women