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School teaches methods to treat animal abusers

August 22, 2008

A common assumption is that people who are cruel to animals eventually will hurt people. Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz and Albert “Boston Strangler” DeSalvo shared a history of injuring animals.

But the association between animal cruelty and human violence is much broader, according to Dr. Christina Risley-Curtiss of Arizona State University’s School of Social Work.

The school’s Treating Animal Abuse Certificate program is training human service practitioners to understand that people who hurt animals often are showing signs of much deeper issues that, when properly diagnosed and treated, can help to prevent other forms of violence.

“Animal cruelty is often a mechanism for kids to take out anger for their own abuse. Persistent early-age animal cruelty is an early indicator of a child who’s in trouble.” says Risley-Curtiss, director of the program.

Very few human service professionals in the nation are training people to treat children or adults who are cruel to animals, yet animal cruelty has been found to be associated with domestic violence, child maltreatment and increased criminality, she says.

The online certificate program is designed to augment the skills and knowledge of degreed social work and other human service practitioners, and to help create a body of professionals who are trained in treating people who abuse animals.

The two non-credit courses use a cognitive-behavioral approach to treatment, showing counselors how to teach animal abusers to be accountable for their actions and develop empathy and self-management skills.

Students learn the positive and negative aspects of animal-human relationships, sensitivity to cultural contexts of abuse, and the social-psychological causes of violence.

The program, in partnership with the national nonprofit Animals and Society Institute, is taught through the School of Social Work in the College of Public Programs at the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus. An advanced program that includes clinical supervision also is available.

Courses also teach how the types of abuse and motivations for animal cruelty vary.

For example, “Dogs are more likely to be abused while being disciplined, and cats are more likely to be killed and tortured,” says Risley-Curtiss, who is one of only 100 advisors globally for the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. Males are more likely to physically abuse animals, but the typical “hoarder” – someone who keeps many animals with insufficient resources to properly treat them – is a middle-age woman, she says.

Risley-Curtiss also is developing an assessment and diversion program for children who are abusing animals. The School of Social Work has helped to coordinate field work for several graduate students in organizations that incorporate the human-animal bond, including the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office MASH Unit, a no-kill shelter for abused animals.

“We’re so human-centric as a society that it’s hard to get people interested in looking at animal cruelty unless we can directly relate it to the human benefits,” she says. “By treating animal cruelty, particularly in children, we’re assisting in preventing other forms of violence.”

Risley-Curtiss points to a recent case in which she studied a 12-year-old boy who feels driven by an instinct to hurt animals. He hates cats with a passion.

“If this kid doesn’t get help, he almost certainly will go on to hurt people,” she says.

For information, visit or call Risley-Curtiss at 602-496-0083.