Animal Crime Demographics: A Case Study From Chicago
Cruelty against animals is often presented as a special sort of crime. When we think of the sorts of people convicted of such crimes, we usually envision future serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer or David Berkowitz. This mythos surrounding animal cruelty has given rise to what some social scientists call “The Link” — a supposed tie between animal cruelty and future violent crime. The idea is that troubled youths will begin by harming animals and eventually graduate to harming humans, seeking a more intense thrill. Killing animals is seen as a sign of a lack of empathy, which correlates specifically to violent crimes.
This “Link” is somewhat true — people who abuse animals are more likely to be violent criminals than those in the general population. However, they also have higher rates of nonviolent offenses. So, their cruelty toward animals may not be due to a psychopathic lack of empathy but to the socioeconomic conditions that are generally associated with all types of crime. This study examines animal cruelty’s relationship to all crimes by looking at the crime records of Chicago, Illinois.
To determine the relationship between animal cruelty and general deviancy, the researchers examined all incidents and arrests in Chicago between 2009 and 2012 in which a crime against an animal was either the primary or secondary charge. The severity of animal crimes ranged from unlawfully possessing a dog to engaging in animal fighting rings.
During this time period, there were 605 secondary charges and 1,990 primary charges for animal-related crimes. However, animal-related crimes do not have their own primary charge classification, so they were charged as “miscellaneous crimes.” Of the 605 secondary charges, 97% were for animal abuse or neglect and 3% were for animal fighting. Of the 1,990 primary charges, most were for animal abuse or neglect of owner duties (84% combined). Of the remaining 16%, 14.5% of charges were for possession of certain dogs by a felon, and only 1.5% were for animal fighting. Among all of the animal crimes, 92% were misdemeanors, 6% were felonies, and the remainder were missing a charge type.
The offenders fit the general profile for criminals in Chicago: 88% were male, 73% were black, and 56% were between the ages of 18 and 34. If the offenders had concurrent charges, they were most likely for drug charges or other nonviolent offenses. In fact, violent crimes were the second-least-likely concurrent charge type, with only property crimes being less common. Furthermore, violent criminals were not more likely to commit serious animal cruelty than nonviolent offenders.
The authors argue that this is evidence against the idea that animal-related crimes are the product of a diseased or psychotic mind. It is more likely, in their view, that animals are being used by gang members, who primarily deal in drugs and weapons. The gang problems in Chicago are the result of disenfranchised and segregated neighborhoods, not psychopathy.
There are some limitations to this study. For one, cases in which animal-related charges are tertiary or lower will not be recorded. That is, in an incident with a murder, a related car theft or animal cruelty is not included in these results. Furthermore, location is not recorded in this data set, which makes it more difficult to confirm the authors’ hypothesis that much of Chicago’s animal crime is in neighborhoods with high gang activity. Despite these shortcomings, the authors argue that their findings will be useful in law enforcement’s efforts to stop animal crime as well as sociologists’ explanations for the causes of animal crime.
The old way of thinking about animal crime — “The Link” — is anthropocentric in that it sees animals as indicators of crimes against humans rather than victims of crimes themselves. By understanding that the factors leading to crimes against animals are similar to those leading to crimes against humans, the authors hope that we can see animals as subjects in their own right. Furthermore, they hope this knowledge will lead to positive human-animal interactions in areas plagued by crime and hardship.