I worked as a clinical counselor for children and families affected by trauma for over 20 years. One of the first questions I asked my young clients was, “Do you have any pets?” Most of them did.
The question seems simple enough, but it actually was very powerful on many fronts. First of all, it allowed me an opportunity to open up conversation with them in a friendly and non-threatening manner. Children are naturally curious about animals, and even if they do not have a pet of their own, they usually have developed a relationship with an animal at some point in their life, and they have some interest in talking with others about their pets.
Asking about pets also allowed me to explore other clinical information without being too intrusive. How were pets treated in their home? Had the child experienced losses of pets? Had someone in the home been cruel to pets? Had the child ever had a frightening incident with an animal?
Of course, one of the first questions I asked parents and caregivers was, “Has the child ever hurt animals?” I also asked if anyone else had harmed animals in the home.
I asked several other questions in clinical assessment interviews, but I always found questions about pets to be particularly illuminating. Understanding how children relate to animals is very important to understanding their inner and outer worlds. A child who treats animals in a loving manner has strength of compassion, and likely has supportive, loving people in his or her life. A child who harms animals often has deep psychological stress and limited familial support.
Children who harm animals often have been victims of violence themselves and they are re-enacting their trauma through their behavior towards vulnerable creatures. They often lack supportive adults in their lives, and they often have overly stressed adults for caregivers. If their angst is not redirected, they are likely to move on to harming human victims in their attempts to overcome their inner sense of powerlessness.
Few children who harm animals grow up to be serial killers, but many do grow up to abuse their intimate partners and their children. Serial killers are rare aberrations of humanity. Domestic violence, however, is an all too common problem in all human societies.
Stopping abuse towards animals is a worthy activity in and of itself. But if we teach children early to be compassionate towards animals, we can also help to reduce domestic violence and child abuse in the human community. We can help children learn that abuse to animals is not normal, and we can help troubled youth find the supports that they need.
Programs to Help Are On the Rise
There is a movement growing to address the human animal bond and its implications for human to human interaction in society. I have seen it manifested in 4 different but important directions:
- Humane Education – Teaching children in schools and special programs about compassion and respect towards animals. Humane education often teaches children about responsible pet ownership as a way to generalize concepts of responsible citizenship and action towards social justice.
- Pet Respite coordinated with domestic violence outreach and shelter services – Many domestic violence survivors are reluctant to seek safety for themselves when they have no options for providing safety to their pets. When survivors are offered temporary respite care for their pets, they are more likely to leave an unsafe relationship with an abusive partner and go to a shelter or other safe place. Domestic violence shelters are partnering with animal rescue groups in several cities around the country to offer this needed service that helps both animals and people.
- Psychological Trauma Treatment – Mental health professionals are becoming more specialized in treating survivors of emotional trauma. Professional treatment for individuals who have experienced abuse and neglect can often redirect wayward impulses that can lead to the abuse of both animals and people.
- Criminal Justice – More and more, severe incidents of malicious treatment towards animals are being addressed seriously by the courts with judges ordering strong penalties for perpetrators. The justice system certainly has a long ways to go, but the tide is turning as society takes a stand against animal abuse.
Relatively few people are aware of the movement, however, and few understand its necessity for improving both human and animal life in our communities. Few know about the connections between animal abuse and abuse to human victims. Few understand that animal abuse is a serious problem because of its implication that humans are likely being abused as well.
Some say that domestic violence and child abuse are more important concerns to address than the needs of animals. Here is the truth. When animals are suffering in society, children are too. When there is violence to animals, there is likely violence to children and others who may be defenseless.
Raising Awareness with Okey’s Promise Art for a Cause
I created the Okey’s Promise Art for a Cause program to stimulate awareness and promote action in communities on the issue. Through public art projects, people become more aware and new dialogues promote action. So far I have created 2 projects in Canton, OH. Both projects were funded by numerous “Okey’s Promise Keepers” from around the world who wanted to be a part of the movement.
The resulting dialogue in my community has led to a partnership between a local animal rescue group and the Domestic Violence Project that offers respite to pets of individuals and families seeking temporary shelter services.
You can become an “Okey’s Promise Keeper” too by contributing to my third project, which will be a mural on a building in Barberton, OH. My hope is that this project will stimulate interest in the Summit County, OH area to more proactively address the links between animal abuse, domestic violence and child abuse.
We can all spread the word and insist that our communities take action for our animals, our children and their families. What can you do in your community to spread the word? (Share your thoughts in the comments section below.)
Vicki Boatright, aka Artist BZTAT, is a full time artist who worked for 20 years as a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor. She specializes in animal themed artworks, and she is known worldwide for her colorful custom pet portraits and public art murals. She created the Okey’s Promise Art for a Cause program to create widespread awareness of the links between animal abuse, domestic violence, and child abuse through public art projects. You can see her artwork on her BZTAT Studios website.