The link between serial killers and animal cruelty

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Published: 28th April 2008
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The study reviewed was "From Animal Cruelty to Serial Murder: Applying the Graduation Hypothesis", which was written by Jeremy Wright and Christopher Hensley. The purpose of their work was to perform an exploratory study illustrating the links between childhood cruelty to animals and later instances of serial murder. Their hypothesis was that acts of serial murder can be explained through social learning theory's graduation hypothesis.

Social learning theory states that should an individual, who will naturally work to seek affection and approval, fail in this attempt, they will undergo feelings of frustration and helplessness. Naturally these feelings will result in anger. A frustrated individual will transfer their anger to those who are unable to retaliate. In the case of serial killers, those who cause them frustration are the source of their violent behavior, yet hold a degree of control over the killer. This prevents the cycle of frustration, humiliation, and killing from resolving itself by the killer confronting their tormentor. Instead the killer will continue to lash out at those who cannot hurt them in return. The graduation hypothesis states that these acts of violence start out small and slowly work their way upward to acts of murder.

Previous literature and studies state that acts of cruelty toward animals could prove to be an early sign of conduct disorder and violent behavior. This is included in the DSM IV, commonly used for diagnosis of mental illness by psychologists and therapists. Studies performed with violent and nonviolent criminal samples revealed that higher levels of behavioral aggression were found in those who had committed acts of animal cruelty during childhood.

There are however, very few studies that extend this behavior to include serial killers. This study is an attempt to do so. Because most identified serial killers are either incarcerated or deceased, it was unfeasible to attempt a survey or interview. So case studies of five serial killers were performed. These five were chosen because of the wealth of information regarding their history and behaviors.
Results of reviewing the five case studies showed they all bore certain things in common. All the serial killers experienced episodes of frustration and humiliation extending over most of their childhoods by either one or both parents. An example of this would be in the case of Carroll Edward Cole, whose mother beat him regularly, invited her friends to beat him, and forced him to wear girl's clothing when in public. In all five cases the frustration and humiliation they felt resulted in acts of violence and torture of small animals as a means of venting these feelings. Often these acts would also create an increasing feeling of pleasure. Over time the killers became more obsessed with these violent acts, which gradually became more prevalent until they began to torture and kill people. One thing to take note of is that all their victims, animal and human, were envisioned as being the person who actually had abused the killers. As each act of violence was a recreation of the wish to kill the abuser, the manner in which the victim was killed was always the same. If the killer strangled animals to death as a child, he would strangle his human victims to death as an adult.

In essence the result which the authors of the study are trying to show is that rather than all serial killers killing and torturing animals as children, the behavior is part of a process by which people can gradually gain pleasure and enjoyment from killing until they become serial killers. In regards to what this says about deviant behavior, it would be a safe guess to say that this study indicates that deviant behavior, while not always defined as illegal behavior, can eventually lead to illegal behavior. With this knowledge, we look for such deviant behavior as an early warning. The person exhibiting such behavior may be more likely than the average person to commit serious crimes in the future.

Article Critique
There is one significant contradiction in this article. In the case study of Edmund Emil Kemper III, who murdered his grandparents as a minor, he was temporarily rehabilitated. After having turned himself in to law enforcement when he murdered his grandparents he was sent to a mental institution until the age of 21. While in this institution, his mental state improved significantly, and he was eventually discharged as being cured. It was not until going home and being subjected to the source of his frustration, his mother, that he experienced a relapse in homicidal behavior. From this occurrence it can be hypothesized that, given the right conditions, a potential serial killer can be rehabilitated. In this case if Edmund had not come back into contact with his mother, he may have stayed mentally healthy. Though this was not the purpose of the study, it would make an interesting side note. The authors make no mention of this potential finding.

The many weaknesses in this article are due to the fact that, given the subject matter, only observational studies can be performed, as experimentation would be unethical. In this way one can only review prior cases of this behavior then attempt to generate it by having a sample of people kill animals and then try to measure their levels of aggression. As a result of this, it becomes very difficult for variables to be isolated so that definitive conclusions can be made. In this case the conclusion was that the authors' attempt to illustrate the link between animal cruelty and serial killers through the graduation hypothesis had succeeded. This conclusion may be a bit premature. The authors did not compare serial killers who had not committed acts of animal cruelty or people who had committed acts of animal cruelty, yet were not serial killers, with the group studied. Had they done so their attempt to show the part the graduation hypothesis takes part in the process of the creation of a serial killer would have been more successful as it would have show bigger differences, if there were any, between the groups studied.

Furthermore, these case studies are based upon second-hand information because of the extreme unliklihood of the authors being allowed to interview convicted serial killers. The fact that two killers studied were deceased long before the study was performed supports this. As is common with case studies, there is no statistical data to support the study. No variables have been defined or measured. While the results of the study show that cruelty to animals in childhood can be a warning sign of later aggressive or homicidal behavior, this was already assumed by much of the FBI and other law enforcement divisions. Though this study does a good job of explaining the applications of the graduation process, no new information was learned or presented.

Oddly enough the study shows that these serial killers did not suffer from a social stigma before and after they were incarcerated. By this I mean that while still children, they never thought what they were doing to animals was wrong. In those cases where they were caught by peers or adults while torturing animals, while others might've branded them as deviant, often the thought that they were deviant never occurred to them.

In this case social reaction theory fails. Social reaction theory states that when a person is branded with a certain label by others, they will often incorporate that label into how they view themselves and act accordingly. For example a person who is labeled as a thief, because that label is now a part of them, they think of themselves as a thief and will commit thefts in order to fit the label. With the serial killers studied, they never recognized or accepted the label of "deviant" or "serial killer" into themselves. Though being a serial killer may be fit to take the place of master status(The status which comes first to mind when people see or think of you) in the eyes of others, often they didn't think of themselves as such. Thus the reactions of society had no major bearings on their thoughts or behavior. Furthermore, as most killers didn't perceive the presence of a stigma or label, they didn't try to undergo any type of stigma management or coping techniques so others would be less aware of what they did. Though they certainly hid what they did from others, it was not through fear of being labeled or an attempt to manage the stigma of that label, but to prevent police intervention so they may continue their behavior uninterrupted.

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