Dogs, Empathy, and Neurobiology

An abandoned, abused dog grabbed headlines this weekend, shocking readers with the cruelty it was exposed to and inspiring them to line up to adopt it. It’s a revealing look into how our empathy, and loss of it, is reflected in our treatment of animals.

Isis chicago dog
Isis, the dog abandoned in East Garfield Park

 

On Saturday the Tribune published a short but chilling story about an abused dog, which likely attracted a readership with its headline: “Cops: Bloody paw prints lead to woman abusing dog.”

A woman who said she “no longer wanted” her dog was charged with animal abuse after letting it out in the cold today in the East Garfield Park neighborhood where children apparently beat it with broomsticks and baseball bats, police said.

By yesterday, the city’s Animal Care & Control department had gotten a dozen calls from people seeking to adopt the dog, though there’s obviously no shortage of abused animals looking for homes; last night, the follow-up story was the most-viewed article on the Tribune’s website.

This contrast, of kids immediately ready to abuse a dog and people immediately ready to save it, reminded me of something I came across while reading up on the recent University of Chicago study about how rats demonstrate empathy, about a study co-authored by the U. of C.’s Jean Decety:

Neuroscientists are now beginning to get a fix on the physical underpinnings of empathy. A research team at the University of Chicago headed by Jean Decety, a neuroscientist who specializes in the mechanisms behind empathy and emotional self-regulation, has performed fMRI scans on 16-to-18-year-old boys with aggressive-conduct disorder and on another group of similarly aged boys who exhibited no unusual signs of aggression.

Each group was shown videos of people enduring both accidental pain, like stubbing a toe, and intentionally inflicted pain, like being punched in the arm. In the scans, both groups displayed a similar activation of their empathic neural circuitry, and in some cases, the boys with conduct disorder exhibited considerably more activity than those in the control group. But what really caught the attention of the researchers was the fact that when viewing the videos of intentionally inflicted pain, the aggressive-disorder teenagers displayed extremely heightened activity in the part of our brain known as the reward center, which is activated when we feel sensations of pleasure. They also displayed, unlike the control group, no activity at all in those neuronal regions involved in moral reasoning and self-regulation.

That’s from a lengthy, difficult, and excellent 2010 piece by Charles Siebert, “The Animal-Cruelty Syndrome,” which examines animal abuse as pathology. If you’ve seen The Interrupters, read the Alex Kotlowitz piece that inspired the movie, or anything else about the transmission of violence, it makes a good companion story. Much of the piece focuses on Randall Lockwood, the ASPCA’s senior vice president for forensic sciences and anticruelty projects, a leader in the relatively small field of animal-cruelty research. Frank Angione, who has collaborated with Lockwood, described Lockwood’s early research in a Department of Justice bulletin, and the numbers are shocking (PDF):

Research specifically designed to assess the relation between animal abuse and child maltreatment is meager yet compelling in its implications. For example, a 1983 study by DeViney, Dickert, and Lockwood of 53 New Jersey families that met State criteria for substantiated child abuse and neglect and had pets in their homes revealed that in 60 percent of these families, pets were also abused or neglected. Animal abuse was significantly higher (88 percent) in families where child physical abuse was present than in families where other forms of child maltreatment (e.g., sexual abuse) occurred (34 percent). One or both parents and their children were responsible for abusing the families’ pets.

Lockwood believes it’s not just that the behavior is learned; it has a deeper, more integral connection to child and domestic abuse

Children who have witnessed such abuse or been victimized themselves frequently engage in what are known as “abuse reactive” behaviors, Lockwood said, re-enacting what has been done to them either with younger siblings or with pets. Such children are also often driven to suppress their own feelings of kindness and tenderness toward a pet because they can’t bear the pain caused by their own empathy for the abused animal. In an even further perversion of an individual’s healthy empathic development, children who witness the family pet being abused have been known to kill the pet themselves in order to at least have some control over what they see as the animal’s inevitable fate. Those caught in such a vicious abuse-reactive cycle will not only continue to expose the animals they love to suffering merely to prove that they themselves can no longer be hurt, but they are also given to testing the boundaries of their own desensitization through various acts of self-mutilation. In short, such children can only achieve a sense of safety and empowerment by inflicting pain and suffering on themselves and others.

And animal abuse isn’t just a matter of anger—it’s a matter of control, which naturally intersects with domestic violence:

Ascione (1998) reported an interview study of 38 women who were battered and had sought shelter. Fifty-eight percent of the women had children and 74 percent had pets. When asked whether their adult partner had ever threatened or actually hurt or killed one or more of their pets, 71 percent of women with pets responded “yes.” Thirty-two percent of women with children reported that their children had hurt or killed one or more family pets. In a replication study of 100 women who were battered and had entered a shelter and a comparison group of 117 nonbattered women, all of whom had pets, Ascione (2000b) found that 54 percent of the battered women compared with 5 percent of the nonbattered women reported that their partner had hurt or killed pets. Children’s exposure to this animal abuse was reported by 62 percent of the battered women. Nearly one in four of the battered women reported that concern for their pets’ welfare had prevented them from seeking shelter sooner.

With all that taken into account, it shouldn’t be surprising that the levels of domestic battery in East Garfield Park, where the dog was found, are very high. Here’s a map of all 2011 domestic-battery incidents (simple and aggravated) via the city’s data portal:

Chicago domestic battery

The study of animal abuse, and in particular its connection to human violence, is still relatively young. As Mary Louise Petersen and David P. Farrington write in the 2009 anthology The Link Between Animal Abuse and Human Violence, “the existing research tends to be based on small, unrepresentative samples, with no or poor control samples, and it relies on retrospective accounts which may be biased by knowledge of more recent events.” But even in its infancy, the research points towards an inextricable link between animal abuse and violence towards and among humans, tied in particular to the home.

The subject interested me after reading about the innate empathy of mice because of its echoes of empathy in humans, who lined up to save the East Garfield Park dog, and its contrast to our ability as humans to lose it so early on in life. And we’re not just learning about empathy from animals—not only are they an early indicator of empathy’s absence, they’re a solution to rebuilding it, as Siebert writes:

For Lockwood, animal-therapy programs draw on the same issues of power and control that can give rise to animal cruelty, but elegantly reverse them to more enlightened ends. “When you get an 80-pound kid controlling a 1,000-pound horse,” he said, “or a kid teaching a dog to obey you and to do tricks, that’s getting a sense of power and control in a positive way.”

People wonder why I’m a cat person, since guys aren’t supposed to be cat people, and that gets to the heart of it. Cats are aloof and ambivalent creatures, who are much more likely to respond with hostility with the same—the main theory for why they’re more more frequently abused than dogs—and as such seem more human to me than any other domestic animal (I wasn’t lucky enough, like a certain character in one my favorite childhood TV shows, to have a dolphin as a pet; YMMV). The wariness and skepticism of the cat feels more honest, and so their affection feels more earned—and yes, I realize this says as much about my own wariness and skepticism as that of my cats. In its own small way, it’s like gaining the trust of a person, a very small sample of how our relationship to our animals mirrors our relationships with each other.

 

Photograph: Animal Care & Control/Chicago Tribune

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