According to figures released by Ireland’s Justice Minister Helen McEntee this month, the Irish police (An Garda) have received 45,487 calls reporting incidents of domestic violence from January 1 2022 to November 11 2022. Upon releasing the figures, McEntee stated that the government’s new strategy to “combat domestic, sexual, and gender based violence…has a particular focus on prevention and on ensuring victims are better supported”.
Earlier this year Minister McEntee pledged €360 million to tackle gender-based violence in Ireland via a Zero Tolerance strategy, and committed to increasing the number of refuge centres from 141 to over 280. While the Zero Tolerance strategy and the Family Justice Strategy 2022 – 2025 present comprehensive plans to tackle domestic violence, both fail to mention one important aspect of domestic violence – animal abuse.
Understanding the Link
A growing body of evidence suggests that there is a connection between animal abuse and domestic violence and that cruelty towards animals could serve as a strong predictor of violence against humans. A 2011 literature review found that “animal abuse should be considered an important indicator of antisocial behaviour and violence” and concluded that the “implications of such a stance are that law enforcement, health, and other professionals should not minimize the presence of animal abuse in their law enforcement, prevention, and treatment decisions”. The connection between animal and human violence is referred to as the Link by researchers and academics.
Abuse against companion animals can take a number of different forms. In many homes companion animals are beloved members of the family and in abusive situations they may be subjected to violence in order to intimidate, control, or retaliate against human family members. According to a 2020 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, companion animals often “become victims during family violence, or [are] used as pawns by the perpetrators to instill and enforce fear and control over their partner and children, creating interlocking systems of companion animal abuse, child abuse, and family violence”.
Cruelty to animals is not an uncommon occurrence in family violence situations. An extensive literature review published in 2021 found that, “the prevalence of animal abuse is high in households with intimate partner violence (range: 21% – 89%) and there is a significant relationship between intimate partner violence and animal abuse”.
Additionally, the psychological impact on children of witnessing animal abuse, particularly abuse against a beloved pet, is profound and well-documented. In Ukraine, the significant impact upon children of witnessing animal abuse is recognised in Article 299 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine which authorises up to 8 years imprisonment for committing animal abuse in front of a child. No such distinction (committing abuse in front of a child) exists in Irish criminal law.
Using the Link as an important tool
The Link is not just an academic concept or a predictor for future behaviour, it is a useful tool that can be used to combat domestic violence in a number of ways. Through understanding the important role that companion animals play in the home, institutions can better serve and protect vulnerable community members.
For example, some abuse survivors have reported delaying leaving an abusive situation out of concern for a companion animal who might be left behind. Just like Ireland, most countries around the world do not have enough domestic violence refuges to meet the demand and there are very few organisations which allow residents to bring their pets with them. There are also few foster programs in place which are specifically organised to care for the companion animals of individuals in refuge centres. Instituting pet friendly policies at refuge centres or working with local animal welfare organisations to create foster programs are cost effective measures that are likely to help some victims seek shelter sooner than they otherwise would have.
In order to successfully implement such policies, collaboration between the Garda, veterinarians, animal welfare organisations, and domestic violence advocates is required. For decades, academics have called for more collaboration on this issue and highlighted the importance of “[t]ransdisciplinary and collaborative interventions between animal welfare agencies and human services organisations to help lives trapped in family violence”. One aspect of developing an interdisciplinary approach would be shared training which is one way of “helping professionals to understand their respective roles and responsibilities, build relationships, and gain insight into each other’s point of view and decision-making processes”.
There are a number of resources and experts which provide just such training and education. Drawing on his 30 years’ experience as a detective in the UK, Mark Randell has become one of the world’s leading experts in the Link and how policing skills can help to prevent the abuse of humans and animals. Randell’s agency, Hidden-in-Sight, assists in investigations and provides comprehensive training to law enforcement agencies around the world in how to expose cruelty and “train others in how to use investigation in campaigns and prosecution cases” while also highlighting “how violence against animals is interlinked with violence against people”. Hidden-in-Sight is just one of many investigative and educational institutions which provide essential training and services in the Link.
The Link in Ireland
In 2008, the Irish Veterinary Journal published an article titled “Animal abuse and intimate partner violence: researching the link and its significance in Ireland – a veterinary perspective”. This article provided an in-depth analysis of the Link and explained how veterinary professionals can play an important role in preventing cruelty against companion animals and humans. However, despite the article’s comprehensive discussion of domestic violence in Ireland and its ties to animal abuse, the Link has not become part of the national conversation around domestic violence in the 14 years since the article was published.
Important issues related to domestic violence such as threats and violence against companion animals, animal abuse as a predictor for violence, and the need for pet-friendly refuges (or alternative arrangements such as foster programs) are not mentioned in any government strategy documents on domestic violence. Currently, Gardai have minimal training in handling animal abuse offences and they do not receive any specialty training regarding the Link and how to recognise it.
The connection between human and animal violence has been recognised for centuries. William Hogarth’s series of engravings, The Four Stages of Cruelty, date back to 1751 and graphically illustrate how violence against companion animals can transition to violence against humans. The Link is nothing new, but we can approach it with new strategies and tools to more effectively prevent the abuse of animals and humans. The need for more refuge centres is urgent, but so is the need for comprehensive training and education. If the Ministry of Justice is seriously committed to combating domestic violence, then animal cruelty and the Link need to be an active part of the conversation.