Guest post: A hotbed of apparently unthinking animal cruelty

Originally a comment by latsot on Torturing animals, for instance, was just good clean fun.

For some reason the area I live in is a national blackspot for animal cruelty. People around here keep amassing vast collections of animals they can’t look after and then causing them to suffer until someone calls the RSPCA.

It’s a strange kind of cruelty. These people want the animals and presumably care about them in some sense…. but somehow don’t recognise that they’re harming them. Making them miserable. Ruining their health.

There’s a riding school close to my house. The horses look like they’re in good condition but the owner was found to have a dozen dogs in a cage, some of which were found eating the corpses of other dogs that had died from starvation and neglect.

There’s a kind of smallholding, again within half a mile of my house, which for some reason had lots of rare and very expensive goats. They were kept in abysmal conditions. Starving, riddled with painful disease, cruelly confined.

There’s an Iguana rescue centre a little further away. This is the North East of England. Iguanas are among the least likely animals to survive here if left to their own devices. Yet enough people buy them and release them into the wild to warrant an actual Iguana rescue centre. The staff told me that people find these iguanas roaming around and bring them into the centre. Iguanas are not like tortoises – natural escape artists – they aren’t getting out of someone’s house on their own.

I’ve no idea why the North East – and particularly this little part of the North East – is such a hotbed of apparently unthinking animal cruelty, but it is. Drives me crazy that my neighbours are apparently all the time torturing animals and presumably thinking it’s acceptable behaviour.

I felt guilty that one time I overslept and gave my cat her breakfast an hour late.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    I’ve been thinking about this some since the “cat-burning” thread, where I asked the question:

    From the standpoint of a science-fiction writer — if you could design your own utopia from the ground up, and you wanted it to be self-sustaining, how would you do it? I’m not being facetious — I do believe that society has been improving by fits and starts over the centuries. I just wonder what’s driving the change, why it’s so slow, and what we can do to speed up the process.

    The difference between us and these torturers is empathy. How do you gain and nurture empathy?

    My theory is that empathy is a learned skill, and the thing that teaches us to feel it is reading — especially reading fiction, biography, and autobiography. Perhaps some day science will create a machine that lets us see the world through someone else’s brain. But until that day comes, reading is the closest we can get.

    If I were a psychologist, I’d be interested in doing a study on how much kindness towards the “other” correlates with reading — especially reading as a child. I’m sure most of the FTB regulars here read a great deal. I simply find it hard to believe that any of the people described above would spend much time with even trashy literature, let alone the good stuff.

    Of course, my profession is a literature teacher, so perhaps I have a vested interest.

  2. says

    The interesting thing is that researchers have been finding that empathy isn’t (solely) learned. It shows up too early to be solely learned.

    Martha Nussbaum argues in Poetic Justice that novels promote empathy, but not as convincingly as she argues other things, in my view. But I think there’s something in it. On the other hand people are good at compartmentalizing and rationalizing etc, so…

  3. Rowan vet-tech says

    I don’t think empathy is entirely a learned thing either, though turning it off is something that is definitely learned. I say this from a standpoint of being part of a family with overactive mirror neurons. I’m in veterinary medicine because my tendency towards empathy is so strong that I *can’t* do human medicine. My muscles cramp up in sympathy to injuries enough with things with fur.

  4. shadow says

    From the OP:

    I felt guilty that one time I overslept and gave my cat her breakfast an hour late.

    As you should, our feline companions (dogs have owners, cats have staff) can be very unforgiving.

  5. Lady Mondegreen says

    I wonder–if we could isolate a gene or genes for psychopathy, would it be right to practice “soft eugenics” in order to eliminate it? For example by promoting prenatal genetic testing and tweaking or removing those genes before birth, or promoting the abortion of those fetuses?

    I was also wondering whether the incidence of psychopathy was actually higher in the past. It would be nice to think so.

  6. Lady Mondegreen says

    Of course most psychopaths, AFAIK, do come from very abusive backgrounds. People can apparently have some genetic predisposition for it, but if they receive proper loving and nurturing in childhood they won’t necessarily grow up to have full-blown Antisocial Personality Disorder.

  7. lorn says

    A significant amount of this sort of thing is fallout of economic hardship. In good times people buy pets to share their lives with. When things get tough the liminal status of pets, caught between being sentient dependents and property, sets up a trap for the animals. People can’t bear to give up their property, and giving them up means facing failure, and at the same time neglect sets up a shame spiral. They can’t face the fact of the results of their neglect and they can’t let go.

    It is widely assumed that only the mentally infirm get into such a state and that most people resolve the contradiction before things get too bad. Then again, a whole lot of people face the same inherent contradiction dealing with library books. They mean to get them back to the library but things happen and then they don’t want to have to face the librarian, perhaps a fine, and returning them gets put off. As the time gets longer it only gets harder. If “normal” people can get hung up on something so simple it is pretty easy to see that the more intense feelings around an animal you love and identify with might cause conflicts in people who, like most of us, have issues.

    And once the conflict gets established facing it get harder. Resolution often takes the form of the animal dying. Sad.

  8. latsot says

    A significant amount of this sort of thing is fallout of economic hardship.

    That’s true. We’re good at fooling ourselves. It’s easy for an outsider to feel that there must have been a point where the pet owner realised that they had to give up the pet for its own good but that’s much harder to see from the inside. I can sympathise with such people, to some extent.

    Not all cases are like that, though. The riding school I mentioned is doing well and the horses are well cared-for. The dogs were deliberately neglected. There’s a dog shelter about a mile away (part of a national network). There’s another two miles away. If they were just sick of the dogs, they had at least those options. It seems as though they just didn’t care what happened to them.

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