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The link between animal cruelty and domestic violence

When I was in my late teens my best friend was a brilliant, iconoclastic, Catholic, conservative, whose parents has escaped Communist Poland and lived in Apartheid South Africa before emigrating to the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles.  My political beliefs were not nearly as well thought out or firmly held but I came from a liberal Jewish culture and Los Angeles in the late 70’s and early 80’s was an extremely libertine environment.  My friend and I would have raging debates about all manner of political and social issues.

One of the debates we used to have regarded cruelty towards animals.  My friend believed it was  “no big thing” and a useful outlet for man’s sadistic impulses (I never was sure whether his “viewpoint” was truly held or merely a conservative reaction against coming of age in what was one of the more liberal cultures in human history). In contrast, I would argue that cruelty towards animals had a coarsening effect on humans and to tolerate cruelty towards animals would lead to increased cruelty towards humans (actually my argument would not have been that succinct or cogent but Haverford College and law school greatly improved my vocabulary and analytical skills).

There was an article in Sunday’s New York Times magazine that reminded me of our old debates, The Animal-Cruelty Syndrome. It appears twenty years of scientific study has found a link between animal cruelty and reduced empathy and has further found that cruelty towards animals is often a sign or precursor of domestic abuse or child abuse.  The articles notes that veterinarians are often being trained to look for signs of abuse in animals and that law enforcement is being trained to investigate domestic abuse and child abuse when they encounter animal cruelty.

The article further increased my admiration for South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster.  The pet (pardon the pun) issues McMaster has emphasized as Attorney General are domestic violence and animal cruelty, exhibiting an almost Democrat-like concern with protecting the least powerful elements of society (unlike his predecessor who focused on divisive hot-button social issues that played to the most extreme elements of the Republican Party).

Finally the article reminded me of an unpublished South Carolina Supreme Court opinion from 2008, Garcia v. Saski. In that case Saski choked Garcia’s dog to death.  A few days later Garcia applied for a protection from domestic abuse order with the family court, alleging that Saski’s actions in choking her dog to death put her at “threat of physical harm.”  The family court agreed and issued an order of protection.  Saski appealed to the Supreme Court.  The Attorney General’s office actually filed an Amicus Curiae [friend of the court] brief in support of Garcia’s position.

In a 3-2 decision the Supreme Court reversed the family court finding that Garcia’s “subjective fear for her safety does not warrant issuance of the order of protection, particularly given the facts that it was more than one month between the incident and the final hearing, Saski had moved out of the house, and the parties had had absolutely no contact in the interim.”  The two dissents believed that “evidence that a household member killed an animal clearly supports a finding of a threat of physical harm.”

I have always believed the Supreme Court was mistaken in reversing the lower court in Garcia v. Saski and further mistaken in not publishing their decision (though, given what I believe is the poor reasoning of the majority, I should be glad the decision has no precedential value).  I am curious though, if our Supreme Court had access to the research linking animal cruelty to domestic violence when it decided to reverse this domestic abuse finding and, if it hadn’t, whether awareness of this research might have led to the Supreme Court affirming the lower court.

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