Animal cruelty bothers me way more than it should. Is this related to my childhood sexual abuse?
March 31, 2010 11:55 AM   Subscribe

Animal cruelty bothers me way more than it should. Is this related to my childhood sexual abuse?

I related an issue I was having about dealing with animal cruelty with one of my previous therapists and she said that many of her patients who were victims of childhood sexual abuse raised similar issues. We didn't talk much about it then because it was off-topic but now I am back to wondering about it again.

I get really bothered by animal issues. And even though I know it's crazy, I have a harder time dealing with animal abuse than I do with child abuse. I hear about an animal getting beaten or injured and it makes me sick to my stomach. I will often cry about news stories regarding animal cruelty but I don't have a similarly visceral response with stories of child abuse. Why?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (34 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

Just a data point - I was not abused as a child. I feel the same way, and have cried at reading about instances of animal abuse, but never have had the same reaction to child abuse. It's a completely irrational gut feeling, and I'm a little bothered by it.

I have heard from friends that when I have kids, this will likely change.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 12:04 PM on March 31, 2010

I also wasn't abused as a child, but I think I have a similar reaction to yours. It bothers me to hear about any human being harmed, sometimes even a bad person. But hearing about an animal being deliberately harmed might upset me the rest of that day, maybe more than one day. I don't know why, but my guess is that it's because animals are more defenseless, and more innocent.
posted by Ashley801 at 12:10 PM on March 31, 2010

Yeah another data point by someone who wasn't sexually abused as a child: I can't even watch ASPCA commercials. It's hard for me to hear about an animal being trapped somewhere even if it turned out ok. Child abuse greatly upsets me, but my reaction to it is a lot less visceral than my reaction to animals in pain.
posted by Kimberly at 12:11 PM on March 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

I can't even watch ASPCA commercials.

This is me too. And no history of sexual abuse, fwiw.
posted by jessamyn at 12:13 PM on March 31, 2010 [11 favorites]

(For example - I took criminal law and heard about all kinds of gruesome things, and came close to having to leave the room once or twice [rape law discussion comes to mind] but never actually had to do it. But, there's an animal rights elective I was interested in taking, but couldn't even bring myself to register for the course because of the things I knew I'd have to read about.)
posted by Ashley801 at 12:13 PM on March 31, 2010

I wasn't sexually abused, but I was physically abused, and I react the same way. (I do have a kid.) I wonder if maybe it's because since I've been through abuse and survived, I figure it's easier for a kid to deal with than an animal. Because no matter how old an animal gets, it will never be able to move out, nor will it ever understand why it's happening.

Or maybe it's because my cats were the only members of my family who loved me unconditionally, and who didn't beat me.
posted by MexicanYenta at 12:13 PM on March 31, 2010 [9 favorites]

Oh, geez, that really sounded like I was wallowing in self-pity, wah wah, poor me! Not my intent at all!
posted by MexicanYenta at 12:16 PM on March 31, 2010

And FWIW, I don't think that, as you said in the heading, it bothers you "more than it should." (If you mean according to some objective standard, as opposed to your own preference for how much that sort of thing would affect you.) Personally, I think it would be a better world if everyone were that bothered by it.
posted by Ashley801 at 12:16 PM on March 31, 2010 [4 favorites]

And FWIW, I don't think that, as you said in the heading, it bothers you "more than it should."

Seconding. I have always liked animals better than people, as a general rule. They're nicer, overall.
posted by MexicanYenta at 12:18 PM on March 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

i was sexually abused as a child, and while i don't like animal abuse, i don't think it affects me like it does you. although, i am a vegetarian for the express purpose of "reducing suffering". i do have the crying, sick stomach reaction to child abuse.
posted by nadawi at 12:19 PM on March 31, 2010

I have the same reaction as you do. I even cry over fake animal cruelty in movies. I'm not sure why, but maybe animals just seem more harmless and innocent than human beings.

I think the feeling you have for a beloved pet is pretty unconditional. My husband might get mad at me, but my dogs never do! They think I'm awesome on both my best day and my worst day. They're so helpless and rely on me for everything. The thought of anyone purposefully hurting them makes me ill.
posted by MorningPerson at 12:19 PM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

More anecdata: I can't bear to watch or hear animals in pain, whether they're on TV or nearby, but I was never sexually abused. I can watch gory movies and plastic surgery docs without squirming, but a sickly looking animal makes me really upset.
posted by vickyverky at 12:21 PM on March 31, 2010

Another anecdote: I am also a person who can't even watch ASPCA commercials. I was less troubled by depictions of news stories about child abuse, or films and books that included child abuse, than I was by depictions of animal abuse, until I had kids of my own. Now I just can't stomach it--I think I no longer have the ability to put that little bit of distance between me and the story.

I was not sexually abused.
posted by not that girl at 12:25 PM on March 31, 2010

There's a sequence in the movie "How to Train Your Dragon" that has the main dragon character trapped (by people) and accidentally underwater. This is an animated children's movie about imaginary creatures! Not only did everything turn out OK in the end, it was pretty obvious from the movie format that it _would_ turn out OK! In my defense, the dragon character was a lot like a big black kitty, with huge soulful eyes, and we currently have a very sweet black cat living with us, but still...

I still haven't told my significant other that I had a hard time falling asleep after seeing the movie because I kept vividly seeing the underwater scene in my mind. Also the scenes where the injured dragon was trying to fly and couldn't. Argh.

Theory: even though I've been bitten and scratched once or twice by animals, they always seemed completely innocent, and dependent on me. They rouse my "protect" emotions.

Kids, sometimes, but I have vivid memories from my own childhood of kids being cruel, perverse, stupid, loud, ugly, and of me being trapped in the occasional Lord-of-the-flies-type school situation with them. In other words, while kids are cute and endearing, my emotional connection to them is a lot more complex than to animals.
posted by amtho at 12:26 PM on March 31, 2010 [10 favorites]

Possibly, though not necessarily. As survivors (me too) we all process these things differently.

My experience is that I am not particularly fond of animals and while I certainly don't love the abuse of animals or any other living thing, I am not overly or markedly affected by it either.
posted by Sophie1 at 12:30 PM on March 31, 2010

This is me, too. No history of abuse, just a serious animal person. Scenes of animal abuse keep me up at night like nothing else (other than "The Ring") can.
posted by biscotti at 12:36 PM on March 31, 2010

I don't know why people react this way (I do too), but my theory is that whatever mental, emotional or moral sense triggers this reaction is the natural equivalent of the Christian doctrine of original sin: humans, no matter how young and blameless, don't possess the same pure innocence as animals do. Animals are not part of our fallen species. We react less to cruelty towards our own kind, knowing as we do our own flawed nature; the impossiblity of sin or evil in animals makes it harder for us to justify or comprehend why they might be deserving of cruelty.

I'm sure that's not really an explanation, but it's the only analogy I can come up with to explain the (widespread) phenomenon you describe.
posted by Dasein at 12:39 PM on March 31, 2010 [4 favorites]

As a child--during the formative years--we loved, cared for, and defended our cats and dogs. I didn't establish an early habit of taking care of and defending kids. Kids were peers, competitors, bullies, friends.

I say its an old habit that probably changes when one has a child. All new conditioning comes into play.

posted by General Tonic at 12:46 PM on March 31, 2010

Kids, sometimes, but I have vivid memories from my own childhood of kids being cruel, perverse, stupid, loud, ugly, and of me being trapped in the occasional Lord-of-the-flies-type school situation with them. In other words, while kids are cute and endearing, my emotional connection to them is a lot more complex than to animals.

I think you nailed it pretty well for me, especially the Lord-of-the-flies type stuff.
posted by Ashley801 at 12:48 PM on March 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

I really don't think there's a standard amount this "should" bother anyone. I definitely feel similarly about animal abuse issues; it's a much more visceral, helpless reaction than when I feel about horrible child abuse. It's not that I think animals > people and I'm really not sure it can be explained.

I think General Tonic et al are correct.
posted by Neofelis at 12:55 PM on March 31, 2010

I can't even watch ASPCA commercials.

Me too. I fumble for the remote as soon as I hear the commercials start. Mr. crankylex has been so well trained by my horror over these commercials that he will actually sprint in from a different room to turn the channel on the tv.

He gets mad at me because I don't have the same reaction to people in distress, even children. I can watch a thousand people being butchered in the worst carnage in a movie and not bat an eyelash, but if a dog dies in the same movie, I can't watch it. I don't even watch movies where I think there might be an animal death (I've never seen I am Legend, for example.)

I was never sexually abused, but I did have a difficult childhood where my only real constants were my pets. Even as an adult, I would much rather spend time with my pets than with most people.
posted by crankylex at 1:00 PM on March 31, 2010

Personally, I've never had a really strong reaction to animal cruelty. I don't like it, I don't engage in it, I don't condone it in any way, but I don't have a problem with hunting and trapping (if done properly, responsibly, and with respect for the animals that being hunted). That being said, one of the saddest days of my life was when my family dog was finally put down. I remember talking to my dad afterwords and he joked that he didn't cry that hard when his own parents died.

I've often wondered at this reaction. I think part of it is that people have a much more simple connection to animals and a much more complicated one to other human beings. So when something tragic happens to an animal, we just feel the pain without as many conflicting emotions to temper the response. I think another part of it is just our position of power. Yeah, a bear can totally eat you, but humans on balance (thanks to all our gadgets et. al.) are vastly more powerful then these animals. In this kind of abuse there isn't any semblance of 'fairness', we are just stronger picking on the weaker. Somewhere in there, we have this programming that tells us that we should protect the weaker, and maybe the violation of this is what makes it so painful to hear about.
posted by ghostiger at 1:02 PM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have no history of sexual abuse, but I do have the same reaction to animal cruelty, animals being hurt in any fashion, or even just sad stories about animals. I think my dog dreads ASPCA ads or sad dog stories because she knows I'm going to interrupt her window-guarding time with hugs...
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 1:17 PM on March 31, 2010

Not to get too philosophical about this, but: in our society, we often make the mistake of believing that being inured to cruelty or violence is some sort of strength. This is a natural mistake to make, given that, since we live in such a media-saturated, it can sometimes be almost impossible for a rationally sensitive person to make it through the day without being affected.

I can imagine that your sensitivity to cruelty might be related to your childhood sexual abuse; but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. You're probably sensitive to cruelty because you've seen it and experienced it, and therefore are more able to recognize it directly than others. Your sensitivity is a kind of intelligence about these things. Cruelty towards animals can also be more destructive to them as beings; you seem to know well that, as a survivor of abuse, you were able to grow up and deal with that abuse emotionally and spiritually, as difficult as that process may have been. Animals don't have any way to go through that process and deal with their abuse; they experience things more directly than we do, in that they don't have words to reason about their encounters. So it makes sense that you're more sensitive to cruelty towards animals than you are to cruelty towards humans. I hope you can see that, though this sensitivity might open you up to a lot more pain in the world, it's actually an asset, because it means you're a lot more perceptive about these kinds of things than others are.

Cruelty is always bad. Some people might want to convince you that it's necessary or routine in certain circumstances, that you're being 'oversensitive' when you recoil from cruelty in all cases. Don't let them. Your sensitivity to the well-being of animals is a sign that you have a more perceptive grasp of the experiences of other creatures; and that perceptivity can give you an extraordinary insight into the world if you're willing to explore it a bit. As painful as it might be at times, sensitivity to cruelty towards animals is actually a gift.
posted by koeselitz at 1:27 PM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Coral Lansbury wrote about the connections between cruelty to animals and the oppression of women in "The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers and Vivisection in Edwardian England."

Among her observations is this: "That cruelty can be extraordinarily satisfying cannot be denied, for cruelty is a magnifier of identity, a simplifier of social function, and the temporary resolution of insecurity and doubt… Cruelty relies on a rigid observance of the categorical distance between victim and oppressor."

It is certainly an academic work, but is accessible and interesting, and may provide you with new insights into the connections you seem to be making between your own experience and cruelty to animals.
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:28 PM on March 31, 2010 [5 favorites]

When I saw Road Warrior after hearing about it for years, it amazed me that only one horror was apparently too awful for that film to inflict it upon us explicitly: the killing of Max's wonderful little dog.
posted by jamjam at 1:42 PM on March 31, 2010

I've thought about this a lot, too. (FWIW, I haven't been abused.)

My theory is that cruelty in all forms is unspeakable, and nearly incomprehensible. But there is something about cruelty inflicted on humans that is particularly brutal - brutal to the point where our conscious minds cannot process it. Because if we could process it we couldn't function. We would just feel awful and sick depressed and helpless. Animal cruelty is awful in a parallel way. But because it doesn't involve people we can relate to it differently.
posted by jennyhead at 1:50 PM on March 31, 2010

There are very good answers here, but I just wanted to say I don't think there's an upper limit to how much cruelty should bother you. Allow it to motivate you to help, in whatever way you feel is appropriate.

I'm going to go hug my dog now.
posted by Pragmatica at 1:54 PM on March 31, 2010

I was not abused. I have a stronger reaction to animal abuse than child abuse. Although reactions to both are pretty strong. I don't think there is anything wrong with this. Animals in our society are treated worse than children, we consider them property, beat them, wear them, hunt them, and eat them. And no, I am not a vegan. All abuse, animal, human, whatever, is wrong. I am frequently embarrassed to be human.
posted by fifilaru at 3:19 PM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm a little puzzled by the phrase, "more than it should." Is there amount that a person should be bothered by animal cruelty, but no further? I honestly can't think of what could constitute being overly bothered by animal cruelty.

If anything, I think that most people are bothered too little by animal cruelty. Animals are both innocent and blameless. People should be bothered when the innocent and blameless are treated with cruelty. They should be bothered A LOT.

Maybe it's just that your history of abuse has made you more empathetic, more willing to understand the position of the victim, and given you a better understanding of what the phrase "animal cruelty" really means.
posted by ErikaB at 5:04 PM on March 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

I too am not sure how much it should bother you, but personally I have a hard time dealing with any sorts of depictions of animal cruelty, including stuff that is supposed to be "funny", and I haven't been subject to any sort of abuse myself.

I've also professionally engaged in research into both domestic violence and homicide, and have heard (and seen, in some cases) in some detail about the horrible things people do to other people. And it's not that cruelty and violence towards people doesn't affect me, it just doesn't affect me to quite the extent that violence toward animals does. I've always found that a bit weird, and can't really explain it, but that's just the way I seem to be wired.

Your own experience of abuse may or may not have anything to do with it, but it seems that there are plenty of us out there that feel the same way on this particular issue.
posted by damonism at 5:26 PM on March 31, 2010

Chiming in with the same reaction to animal cruelty, with no history of sexual abuse in my past. Perhaps it's just empathy, or maybe it's because animals are far more dependent and helpless than humans, with the exception of children. Of course, child abuse also makes me react deeply. I do not see anything wrong with being sickened and upset by your reaction. I think it's normal. I am not a parent.

I do not know if perhaps it's 'easier' or somehow 'safer' to be upset by cruelty to animals than to children for people who have been victimised--a way of placing the empathetic hurt in a similar, but not identical, situation.
posted by Savannah at 7:43 PM on March 31, 2010

Derrick Jensen is an author who compares his childhood abuse to abuse of the natural world, including animals. He has strong reactions to environmental degradation and animal cruelty. This is probably most fully explored in the book A Language Older Than Words.

Also, in the fictional book A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley draws a (less direct) connection between treatment of people and of the land.
posted by salvia at 8:16 PM on March 31, 2010

I'm projecting here, but I wonder if the "more than it should" means "more than it should, relative to how much child abuse bothers me". I have the same reaction to animal abuse as the OP (and I had a ridiculously happy childhood, just as a data point), and I too am not nearly as bothered by child abuse - and I kind of feel that I ought to be as upset by child abuse as I am by animal abuse. The fact that an animal suffering upsets me more than human suffering makes me feel as though I must be a bad person.

(I'm actually kind of relieved to have read this question and seen so many of you say the same thing, because I've always just assumed that my brain must be wired up wrongly...)
posted by raspberry-ripple at 3:16 AM on April 1, 2010

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