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OTI Online
Fall 2008

Terrorizing the Loved Pets of Women
by Carol J. Adams


Several years ago, for one week’s time, I was a circuit rider working against domestic violence. I traveled from county to county throughout a western portion of a Northeastern state, training 1,000 clergy about battering and proper pastoral responses.

I wept from all I heard: pastors advising women to return home, and the women being killed that very night; ministers who themselves were batterers. A formerly battered woman said to me: “They don’t understand what life-threatening means. They don’t have any inkling what it means to be scared for yourself.”

One minister said to me: “I have two churches. The one is very rural. Fifty percent of the women are being battered now – sexually, verbally, him chasing her through the house with a shotgun, alcoholism, literally beating the shit out of her.” Another told me, “I counseled a young woman in the hospital. She had a heart condition. The boyfriend kept coming in. She left. She came back in, in critical condition this time. She had cigarette burns on her back. She died.” He paused, looked directly at me and said, “I believe she was murdered.”

Abused People, Abused Pets

I was reeling from all the stories, the weight of the reported (and unreported) violence.
As I checked out from one hotel to head toward the next town, I found a pamphlet at the front desk. It was for a nearby animal sanctuary. “That would be a good break,” I thought, and it was right on the way to the next community where we were leading a workshop. I called and arranged to visit.

I got to the animal sanctuary about five o’clock. The woman who ran it was very passionate; it was her job to seize animals who were abused. There were potbellied pigs, goats, dogs, horses, roosters, turkeys, ducks. She showed us two abused dogs who were skin and bones. As we walked toward the car, she said she had been getting calls from the wife, saying, “Please give us back the dogs. It was my husband. He’s already broken my wrist. I need to get the dogs back.”

I stopped walking and looked at her. “What did you do?” I asked. She answered: “I thought she was trying to get my sympathy. I get calls all the time begging me to return the animals, saying they weren’t the ones who injured them.”

I said, “This woman is in danger. You need to call her back, give her information about a battered woman’s shelter.”

To create a climate of terror, batterers deliberately threaten, harm or kill animals. Not any animals, but animals who matter to the batterer’s victim. It may be cats and dogs, or it may be gerbils or rabbits, cows or horses or sheep. It is the victim’s relationship to the animal that matters, not the animal per se.

Within the context of terror called “domestic violence,” “woman-battering,” or “wife assault,” injury to animals is particularly powerful and incredibly heart breaking for all who are touched by it. In the 1990s, when I led a workshop on harm to animals at the Texas Conference on Family Violence, many of the stories were told as tears welled in our eyes. No matter their size, a vulnerability attaches to domesticated animals simply because they are domesticated – whether it be a daschund who is stepped on or a German shepherd who is shot. Domestication already has created a vulnerability through the entitlement granted to humans over animals.

Recently, states have passed laws to add animals to orders of protection issued to victims of battering. Humane societies and anti-domestic violence activists together have advocated for this.

Understanding the Dynamic

But, it’s been at least thirty years since feminists identified that harming or killing animals was one aspect of battering behavior, a dynamic first articulated by Anne Ganley in 1978. Ganley, a psychologist who pioneered victim-based counseling for batterers, explained that battering was about power and control, and extended the understanding of battering to include emotional and sexual abuse, as well as destruction of property or the killing of pets.

Why batterers threaten, injure, or kill animals:

1. He harms an animal to perpetuate the context of terror. Making someone watch torture is a particular form of terror. Making someone watch the torture of another is ultimate mastery, saying through these actions “this is what I can do and there is nothing you can do to stop me.”

2. He harms an animal to demonstrate his power. In harming an animal, the batterer simultaneously demonstrates his omnipotence and her complete loss of control.

3. He harms an animal to teach submission.

4. He executes an animal to isolate her from a network of support and a relationship that matters. This relationship may have the last meaningful one she had been allowed to have.

5. He hurts pets because he is enraged when he sees self-determined actions on the part of women and children.

6. He harms a pet as a preemptive strike against her leaving him, as a form of separation violence.

7. He punishes and terrorizes her for leaving by stalking and executing an animal.

8. He may force her to be involved in the animal’s abuse, making her feel that she is a traitor.

9. He harms animals to confirm his power.

List adapted from Carol J. Adams, “Woman-Battering and Harm to Animals,” in Women and Animals: Feminist Theoretical Explorations, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995) pp. 55-84.

This past August, I talked with Ganley about the increased attention that was finally being brought to this area of domestic violence. Ganley offered many important reflections on the recent developments linking pet abuse to domestic violence.

Ganley explains, “Not only pets, but farm animals in the rural areas. It may be companion animals or domesticated animals. It has to do with whatever the adult victim cares about (children, objects [a precious gift], or an animal). And then through direct violence or threats of violence, or misuse or abuse what the victim cares about is put at risk. The action is very targeted –- that’s the terrorist part. It’s not like the person is just generally a bad person, and harming animals, children, and people. Instead, the animal abuse is very targeted against the adult victim – it’s talked about; it’s displayed; it’s done in front of them; the abuser makes sure it’s known about. It’s not hidden, because the message is ‘you do what I say or else.’ And it is done as part of the terrorist manipulation and control.”

Recently, some sociologists have proposed that animals are perhaps “scapegoated” in families due to stress. Ganley suggests that such a theoretical understanding arises because they “aren’t looking very closely at the ways in which pets and animals are damaged by abusers. It’s not when they are stressed; it’s much more calculated. They leave notes saying ‘your cat is in the garbage disposal.’”

Ganley reflected on the situation of a woman who had to dig the grave for a horse who had been murdered by her husband. “Punishment was in making the woman dig the grave. We see over and over again, that this is not explosive behavior. It’s calculated before and after the abuse. We see it in the way abusers use the information to maintain power and control. They might say, ‘You know what happened to the cat five years ago?’ This behavior is very different from blowing up and kicking the dog across the room.“

And the victim understands this. As Ganley says, “The victim takes away from it ‘I will be next. It is destroying my soul, what I love best, and it is also destroying me.’ Which is different from what we see in animal maltreatment, the kind of deviant sociopathy in which a child destroys animals as a stepping stone toward ultimately going after people. But that is because, by and large, deviant children have life and death control over small animals, and as they grow up they graduate on to adult victims.”

Feminists Create Safe Havens

Feminists not only identified pet abuse as a part of battering, but created some of the first programs in response to this recognition. In the early 1990s, Feminists for Animal Rights, a group that sadly is no longer active, created a foster program for animals of battered women who were seeking safety.

Such programs were needed because we knew from our own experience working in the battered women’s movement that many women were not leaving the batterer because they did not want to leave the animals in the household at home, at risk of violence by the batterer. But, they could not leave with the animals because battered women’s shelters often could not accept animals due to health department regulations and/or issues associated with their liability insurance. Although we were able to get the foster programs started in several communities, many successful alliances between domestic violence shelters and animal shelters have provided ongoing alternatives. Some veterinarians also offer to shelter animals.

The good news is that animals are beginning to be covered by orders of protection and there are places that will shelter them. But if we ever think the battering was about the animals, that is bad news for the battered woman, for we would fail to see the deliberateness by which the context of terror is created. Because the woman cares about the animals, the animals are at risk of being abused, harmed or killed. It is her relationship with the animals that puts the animals at risk. As Ganley explains, “The terror is still there even if animals are taken out of the equation; for the batterer, the animal is a means to the end; remove that means and there are others (children, possessions, money).”

Ganley proposes that one of the most important questions we can ask battered women about animals is “How did you find out the animal was injured or killed?” In their answers we learn precisely how a climate of terror is established through power and control.


Carol J. Adams is the author of The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, The Pornography of Meat; co-editor of The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics: A Reader, as well as many other books. In 1978, she started a hotline for battered women in rural western New York . She has also authored a book for pastoral counselors on Woman-Battering.

Also See: Do Feminists Need to Liberate Animals, Too? an Interview of Carol J. Adams by Merle Hoffman in the 1995 On The Issues Magazine.

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