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Can Animal Abusers Be Taught Empathy?

Nancy Parish-Plass

June 6, 2021

I care deeply for animals and I care deeply for people. We know that among the many ways that the fate of animals and people is intertwined, or linked, is the subject of abuse. Child abusers may also abuse animals. Abused children may abuse animals. Some adult animal abusers may force their children to also abuse animals.

It is clear that these children are in need of therapy. I have seen articles which claim that a history of animal abuse is a contraindication for AAP. I have seen others that mention the need to teach empathy in order to stop the animal abuse.

Animal abuse – from where does it originate? Does it come from a lack of empathy? Empathy may be defined as the cognitive understanding of the emotions of another person and it requires the ability to take the perspective of another. Can empathy be taught?

Can we teach empathy to an animal abuser to prevent further abuse? Is lack of empathy the basis for abuse? There are certainly cases in which the abuse comes from a lack of cognitive understanding of the physical and emotional needs of animals, or even that they have emotions. They may not understand that their behavior is abusive, having learned that such behavior is acceptable or even expected from adult models in their lives. Other children may lack certain social skills. Here, a combination of psychoeducation and teaching animal care and welfare would be helpful.

Another group consists of those with no ability for empathy or perspective taking, for they have themselves not been the receivers of empathy. One cannot teach a skill to someone who has no ability to learn that skill.

There is yet another group of children whom I have seen in therapy. These are children who had themselves been abused, and their abuse of animals was actually a REENACTMENT of what had happened to them and what they have witnessed. I have had kids in therapy who loved animals very much yet abused animals very cruelly. They not only talked of empathy towards the animals but also felt guilt and sympathy for the pain they were causing the animals. But they had a NEED to abuse animals. One child told me, “I know very well what it’s like to be hurt and frightened. But I really need to see what it looks like on the outside.” These children are trying to process what happened to them but enter into an endless loop in which they are simply reinforcing the pain, together with the guilt and shame, again and again. What is just as bad is that they are reinforcing a self-image of themselves as abusers.

Finally, there is another group of people who actually enjoy the fact that animals hurt when they are abused. Do they lack the ability to be empathetic? As shown in research, it seems not, for they certainly understand what the animal feels. Will teaching them what hurts an animal stop them from abusive behavior? As one lecturer said, teaching sadists what makes an animal suffer gives them the tools to do what they want to do even better. What they seem to lack is the ability to feel compassion, a strong feeling of sympathy with another person’s feelings of sorrow or distress, usually involving a desire to help or comfort that person.

I have been asked a number of times about the use of Ken Shapiro’s Anicare Model with animal abusers to teach them empathy, with the goal of putting a stop to animal abuse. Would teaching them empathy help? No, since some of the abusers have not ability to empathize, while others often already understand the pain that they cause. However, Ken, together with his colleagues, has written a wonderful book, The Assessment and Treatment of Children Who Abuse Animals. It discusses THERAPY as opposed to EDUCATION! As opposed to TEACHING empathy, the authors state strongly that the capacity for empathy can develop only when one’s own emotional needs have been satisfied and that empathy can be developed only within the context of experience.

This is so true! The way I say it, only once one has been on the receiving end of empathy, can one then feel empathy towards someone else. Furthermore, a basic tenet of compassion training is that one must first of all feel compassion for oneself. In AAP, the child receives empathy and compassion and also witnesses the empathy and compassion for the animals by the therapist. The therapist expresses and shows compassion towards the child for his or her experiences and pain. Many maltreated children feel that they deserve the abuse. They see the therapist showing empathy and compassion, even when the animals “misbehave”, and that the therapist feels that the animals deserve the empathy and compassion despite the “misbehavior” and understand the distress that underlies the “misbehavior”. Remember – behavior is a symptom of something deeper. Work on what’s underneath, and the symptom disappears, for it is no longer needed. Once these children are able to get to the point in therapy in which they are able to talk about what happened to them and work through their issues, then they no longer need to reenact them by abusing the animal.

Children tend to identify with animals, and may then feel that maybe they (the clients) may actually deserve the understanding, empathy and compassion, too. Bruce Perry developed what he calls the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics, a neurobiological model for working with maltreated children. According to his model, only after working with the child on sensory, motor, regulation, emotional and relational issues will the child be ready to do the cognitive work that needs to be done. He actually recommends AAP for all of the stages except for the cognitive stage. I believe that the exercises in the Anicare Child Model would fit in very well with this cognitive stage, after the other stages were worked on. I have seen this in my clients, that once the content has come up through play and with the animals, and then the content can be worked through and processed, and finally when insight has been achieved, then THIS is the time when we can talk ABOUT the difference between their cognitions in the past and those of now, practice change in both cognitions and behavior. But if done too early, the child may feel judged and close up, or may say things that please the therapist but not represent true change. Then, back to Ken’s book, they can experience feeling empathy, and develop that empathy towards others, in the context of experiencing that empathy and practicing it with the animals with the mediation of the therapist, talk ABOUT that experience with the therapist. It’s such a privilege to go through this process with a child who had been an animal abuser!!!

Another thing that I love about Ken’s book, and his approach in general, is that he talks of the importance of AAP with animal abusers, together with the proper precautions to make sure that the animal does not get hurt. Of course, ethically, we should always worry about the animal’s welfare – both physically and emotionally! But in addition, if a child succeeds in hurting an animal, the experience damages that child’s self-image, reinforcing it as an image of someone who hurts others, and the child either feels to be “bad child” or might justify the abusive behavior, also damaging the child. But besides that, in terms of the articles saying that a history of child abuse is a contraindication for AAP, I say that the opposite: The abused child uses his/her interactions with the animals as a form of expression in order to express his/her distress. This is EXACTLY what we are looking for in AAP – children who can use the language of interactions with animals as a form of expression, when they can’t express themselves through any other medium.

In conclusion, I will finish with the sentence I started with: I care deeply for animals and I care deeply for people. I feel that this discussion addresses some issues surrounding the emotional state of people who have suffered from interpersonal trauma and offers a direction for those who are involved with therapy for them. This approach not only will help them stop the loop of abuse, whether towards animals or people, but will send them on a trajectory that will facilitate the therapy process in general and improve their quality of life. And no less important to me, personally and most likely to my Facebook friends, YAY!!!! Less animals will be abused and killed!!!

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