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Can Understanding Violence Against Animals Help Us End Violence Against Women?

A comparison between reactions to animal abuse versus human abuse got me thinking.

 |  Apr 5th 2013  |   50 Contributions


My friend over at Bike Pretty recently sent me a link to a Raw Story article titled, "If Only We Could Talk About Abusing Women Like We Do Abusing Cats."

OK, we're going to get a little serious here for a moment. This is older news, but I still want to talk about it because it's important. The Steubenville rape verdict made me cry. I am elated justice prevailed, but disappointed with the rapists' sentences. More disappointing, however, was case coverage lamenting the rapists' lost "promising futures," instead of what the survivor lost, and the victim-blaming responses that make me want to never leave my apartment again. Perhaps for good reason, too -- following the verdict, two teenage girls were arrested for making threats against the Steubenville victim.

So what does this have to do with cats?

Meet Jackson … had it not been for one brave kid, this cat may have ended up in a lot of trouble. Photo via North Shore Animal League of America

About a week ago, a sweet kid named Wendell in North Carolina chanced upon a group of boys ages 5 to 13 torturing a cat. The bullies were throwing the cat back and forth and trying to run over it with a bicycle. Fortunately for the cat, 10-year-old Wendell intervened, taking the cat home to his mother and rushing the kitty to an emergency vet. The cat, now named Jackson, was looked after by the Outer Banks SPCA until he -- along with 16 other cats -- was transferred to the North Shore Animal League America

As the Raw Story article above points out, no one sympathized with Jackson's torturers, and no one said the cat "asked for it." I agree with everyone's comments: Wendell is a hero, whose compassion and courage are worthy of the commendation he received. I pray that one day, when Wendell inevitably witnesses an injustice toward a woman, he will act upon the same instincts that compelled him to save Jackson -- even if it's something as small as telling a male friend to refrain from catcalling a woman.

I pray that as Wendell navigates the tricky road of growing up a man in a culture that defines masculinity as violent and domineering, he continues to value his sensitivity -- even when someone makes fun of him for it. I pray that Wendell continues to cherish not only the lives of cats, but the lives of women, people of color, and anyone -- woman or man -- whose existence outside conventions puts them at greater risk for mistreatment.

Jackson nuzzles Wendell in a gesture of gratitude. Wendell received a t-shirt for his heroic efforts. Photo via the Outer Banks SPCA

But on that fateful night in Steubenville, where was the Wendell who could have stopped it all? Why was it so easy for a 10-year-old child to see the wrong in torturing a helpless animal, and why was it so impossible for a group of nearly legal adults to, instead of exploiting a helpless young woman, help her? Why is it so much easier for some people to empathize with a cat and not a fellow human being?

There is a proven correlation between those who abuse animals and those who abuse people. According to the ASPCA, the majority of women (85%) and children (63%) who have been victims of domestic violence reported instances of their abusers hurting animals. A bulletin from the National Criminal Justice Reference Service concluded that understanding acts of cruelty to animals by children can lead to solutions for youth violence. More telling, however, the bulletin revealed that most children who hurt animals have themselves been victims of physical and sexual abuse, indicating a cycle of violence. At the core of violence lies a lack of empathy, and the ability to feel for others erodes as victims are subjected to abuse, making it easier for them to perpetuate the behavior.

I am not trying to make excuses for the Steubenville rapists, but I wonder what went wrong in their upbringings that allowed them to justify their actions to themselves. I wonder if the boys who tortured Jackson have been subjected to horrors beyond our darkest nightmares. I wonder about the football coaches who reassured their Steubenville players that they would "take care" of everything and failed to report the crime to the police. I wonder if the parents of Jackson's torturers punished their children for what they did to a helpless cat, but more than that, I wonder if, when those parents read about the Steubenville verdict, they said out loud that the victim was "asking for it," setting up a precedent that it's OK for some people to be hurt by others.

Jackson with a worker at the North Shore Animal League. Photo via the North Shore Animal League

Gandhi said, "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." In these terms, 10-year-old Wendell is the greatest we can hope to be -- he was up against a group of boys who could have easily turned their aggression on him, but Wendell did as his heart compelled him, for a creature some might call "just an animal." If we are capable of such kindness and compassion, what goes wrong?

Jackson the cat's torturers were boys Wendell's age, and, since they've demonstrated their lack of empathy, should we fear what they might do to a helpless fellow human being? And, more importantly, what are we, as adult role models, doing to inadvertently perpetuate cycles of violence? When we call Wendell a hero for rescuing a cat, but we blame, withhold sympathy, and even threaten human victims for the crimes committed against them, we're setting up a confusing -- and potentially dangerous -- message.

Unfortunately, I don't have any answers, but since a lot of us here are women (and men who defy conventions), and we're all cat lovers, I wanted to see what you think. What will happen to Wendell as he grows up? Is he the harbinger of a new world of compassion? While I found the entire Steubenville case and some people's reactions to it upsetting, I took solace in the conversations it generated, in the strength it gave me and other victims to finally speak out about a problem that's been quietly plaguing women -- and men -- for far too long. Sadly, I don't think rape or animal abuse will ever completely cease, but I hope that Wendell is one of a generation of young people who have the strength to stand up for what's right. To some, it was "just a cat" Wendell saved, but one day it might be another human being.

What are your thoughts? Share them in the comments.

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