• ICofA

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 rece