In Memory of Axel

Whether you call Maggie my “animal companion” or my “pet” doesn’t really matter to either of us. All I know for sure is that I love my dog Maggie. When I’m feeling down she puts a smile on my face. She’s always glad to see me and is entertained by everything I do. The therapeutic value of animals in the lives of humans is well known and supported through scientific research. They soothe us, aid our healing, make us laugh, lower our blood pressure and can motivate us to exercise! For most families, their pet is a member of the family. For children, their relationship with a pet might be the first time they share love with someone other than their parents. Many of us even feel our pet understands us better than our human friends. We love our animals.

It can be hard to understand why people have unhealthy relationships with animals or even abusive interactions with animals. There was a television show that portrayed this extreme by interviewing “animal hoarders” and then attempting to provide therapeutic interventions. These peoples’ homes had been taken over by the animals that they collected regardless of their ability to care for them. They substituted social interactions and family involvement for relationships with their pets who love them unconditionally. Clearly this a good thing gone too far, more so it illustrated how emotional dysfunction can negatively affect the animals around us. Is there a perfect number of pets for an individual or a family? Probably not, but standards of hygiene and care should never be sacrificed because there are too many pets. There is no excuse for neglecting the basic needs of a dependent animal.

It’s even more difficult to understand what goes on with a person who becomes abusive towards animals. Animal abuse involves intentionally harming an animal, sometimes out of anger or frustration, but often as a detached act of violence or expression of dominance. This past year Wilmington saw a call to action to change animal cruelty laws after a puppy, Axel, had been beaten to death. Such cases are upsetting on many levels. Initially we are saddened that a vulnerable creature was injured on purpose. As that shock settles in, we are alarmed because we know that most people who harm animals, lack empathy for others and are at risk to repeat the violent behavior.

Empirical research has demonstrated an association between animal abuse, violent behavior towards humans, and family violence. In addition we know that: both perpetrators and victims of bullying are more likely to abuse animals; witnessing animal abuse has a damaging traumatic effect on some children and “teaches” other children to use violence to solve interpersonal problems; and the same issues of control and dominance underlying spousal abuse are often operative in animal abuse.

The abusive treatment of animals can not be tolerated in children or adults. If your child mistreats your pets, then your pets need protection and your child needs limits and supervision around animals. When children have grown up influenced by adults who use violence to solve problems they are at a greater risk to use violence to express difficult emotions. Sometimes those same children feel so powerless in their lives that they feel driven to dominate others but can only find success expressing their angry control over animals. These children (and their parents) need to develop improved skills to communicate their needs, resolve conflicts and appreciate the impact of their behavior on others. Adults who mistreat animals need specialized interventions and to be held accountable for their actions.

If you take on the responsibility of owning an animal, hopefully you will also see the rewards of a blossoming love relationship between yourself, your animal and your family; but never forget you have an obligation to ensure that animal’s well- being. Having an animal entrusted in your care is a privilege. A pet is a loved living being never to be treated as an object that is owned.

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