We’ve all heard the phrase “it’s a dog’s life” and looked at our pampered pooches, thinking “not for you, buddy”. For my own four legged friend, it’s a life of luxury. He’s got his own spot on the couch, his own bed, more-or-less free rein of the house, and legions of adoring fans.
And why shouldn’t he? We got our parson russell terrier Vimes from a rescue centre. He was shy and quiet, painfully thin, didn’t bark and didn’t socialise when he came to live with us. I have no idea what happened to him beforehand, except for a couple of nasty scars, his fear of groups of adolescent boys, and the fact that he was picked up wandering city streets. After about a year, he began to assert his personality and now he is very much part of the family.
All of this is is why, when photos came up on my Facebook timeline on Sunday of a bloodied, injured jack russell, I reacted viscerally. I wasn’t the only one.
Cork DAWG shared photos of Marvin and within hours they had gone viral. When the Gardai picked up Marvin at first they weren’t sure if he was even alive but took him to the vet in case he could be saved. He died of his horrific injuries on Sunday night. His family are shocked and distressed, as would anybody be who had seen such a brutal attack on their pet.
Speaking to me on the 96fm Opinion Line yesterday, Marvin’s owner Sylvia McCarthy said she had never seen such cruelty in her life. She explained how her young son had found Marvin and how they held him in his last hours as he struggled to beat his horrific injuries. Marvin’s throat had been slit and he had other lacerations including what Sylvia says looked like an attempt to cut off his leg.
The reaction on social media has been extreme, with many people seeking information on the names of the perpetrators. While I understand the sentiment, that’s not going to tackle the real issue, which is figuring out what makes people commit such acts of unbearable cruelty, and stopping it before it gets to this.
We hear regularly of cases of neglect of animals; horses found starved by roadsides; dogs left in filthy sheds. Neglect cannot be excused, but there may be extenuating factors – animal welfare officers will tell of elderly people who can no longer look after much-loved pets, or people who can’t afford to keep them any longer, or just don’t know how to meet their needs.
Torture and neglect are far, far apart on the scale. Without being alarmist, an act of cruelty like this shows a lack of empathy on a frightening level.
It’s widely believed in the area that it was teenagers who picked up Marvin on the street, cut his throat and left him to die. That thought is terrifying, because numerous academic studies have found that people who are cruel to animals don’t stop there; they are far more likely to commit violent crimes later on. A US study found that 70% of all animal abusers have committed at least one other crime and almost 40% have committed violent crimes against people; a South African study found that over three-fifths of men who had committed violent crimes had been cruel to animals; another US study found that almost half of rapists had been violent towards animals.
In other words, somebody who enjoys inflicting pain on a powerless animal will seek to get their kicks elsewhere. It’s about power.
When you hear of gangs of youths breaking into elderly peoples’ houses, or abusing younger children, or cases of domestic abuse so upsetting that nobody reads those court reports in the papers, it’s too late. It’s too easy to say nobody could have guessed, because there is always someone – a teacher, a parent, a classmate – who saw that coming in a child’s enjoyment of perverse cruelty towards a smaller creature.
Children need to be taught empathy. They need to learn to nurture something smaller than themselves, to look after animals rather than to fear them, and to learn responsibility and care for others.
This isn’t to say, however, that the only reason to punish cruelty to animals is to protect humans. Animals deserve protection in their own right.
We have animal welfare laws. They provide for a wide range of circumstances, and a jail sentence of up to two years for somebody who is found guilty of cruelty to animals. There is also, interestingly, provision to prosecute the owner of an animal who has been subjected to cruelty by somebody else, if they are found to have neglected their duty to protect the animal.
But, as with many violent crimes against humans, application of the law is inconsistent. A recent case in Dublin of a man who killed his pet dog by swinging it around his head by the lead and bashing its head against the ground – in the presence of his own four year old daughter and other children in a public park – resulted in a conviction and community service, but no custodial sentence. He wasn’t banned from owning animals, something which surely should be automatic with a conviction.
With offences like this, it is not enough to say “lock them up and throw away the key”. There has to be some form of rehabilitation, because all many prisoners will learn in prison is more violence. There has to be some further investigation into how and why somebody learned this behaviour, and some assessment of whether they are likely to do it again. And they must be kept away from animals.
It’s too late for Marvin, and for countless other helpless creatures that have met with terrible deaths. But if we are to learn anything from his death it is that we have to be vigilant with the signs, and to nip violent tendencies in the bud.