Domestic violence: when cruelty to animals can sound the alarm

By Audrey Guiller and Nolwenn Weiler

Evidence suggests that men who are violent towards their wives and children are often also involved in cruel and violent behaviour to pets within the home. While the link has become a key lead in some countries for investigating domestic violence, it is still largely ignored in France despite representing an opportunity for the early identification and protection of victims. Audrey Guiller and Nolwenn Weiler report.

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Once a taboo, the subject of domestic violence, and notably the alarming toll of ‘femicide’ murders of women perpetrated by their husbands, partners or former partners, has become an issue of public concern and debate in France, largely due to the militant campaigning of feminists and associations of support for victims.

Following a slew of domestic violence cases reported in the media this year, and which have underlined institutional failings in dealing promptly with the perpetrators, the French government earlier this summer announced a series of new measures in an attempt to more effectively tackle the problem. These include closer monitoring of perpetrators of domestic violence, the creation of a specific domestic violence offenders list, and a two-fold increase in the number of emergency hotline numbers for victims to call.

One feminist group regularly publishes its own data on femicides, largely from scouring media reports, published on a Facebook page called "Féminicides par compagnons ou ex" (femicides by partners or ex-partners), and by last month had recorded 51 cases of such killings since the start of the year. According to an association of jurists, Lawyers for Women, that toll has now risen to more than 60.

In an interview with France Info radio following the horrific shooting in May in Mérignac, south-west France, of Chahinez Daoud, a 31-year-old mother of three, by her husband, who then poured an inflammable liquid over her and set her on fire, Lawyers for Women president Michelle Dayan denounced the recurrent failure of police to follow up the complaints lodged by victims of domestic violence.

But among victims who hesitate to come forward, indicators of their plight are also all too often ignored. One rarely recognised signal is the fact that many perpetrators of violence against partners and children are also involved in violence against household pets, although evidence of such behaviour regularly emerges in the details of prosecuted cases. “We observe this every year, during tens of legal cases into cruelty towards animals to which we are a civil party,” said Reha Hutin, head of the French animal welfare foundation, ‘30 millions d’amis’.

The link between violent behaviour towards people and that against animals, although largely ignored in France, has been the subject of numerous studies published in the US and Canada. “Violence towards animals is a marker of violence towards humans,” commented Laurent Bègue-Shankland, a social psychology professor with the University of Grenoble-Alpes in south-east France, and the author of a study on the causes of violent behaviour, L’Agression humaine. “Scientific literature has shown this for a long time now.” 

In a case heard in March 2019 before a court in Brittany, north-west France,  a 38-year-old man was given a one-year prison sentence for violence towards his wife and 14-year-old daughter, and also cruelty to the family pets. The case came to light only after the mother’s psychiatrist alerted police to the accounts she gave to him of the situation. Amid the details of his recurrent assaults on both victims, the court was told how, during one fit of rage, he had killed the family’s tortoise, flushed their pet fish down the toilet, and threw away their pet rabbit.

In a separate case, also in Brittany, a 27-year-old man was tried in May 2018 for violence against his 19-year-old partner who had recently given birth to their child. He was handed a 42-month jail sentence after the court heard how he had arrived in a drunken state at the home of his partner, demanding to see the baby and, learning that the infant was still in hospital, beat the woman so violently that her eardrum was burst, before stabbing her. The investigation revealed that in a previous incident, he had throttled the young woman’s kitten and thrown it so violently against the corner of a table that it was disembowelled.

Dorothée Dussy is an anthropologist and member of France’s national scientific research centre, the CNRS,  specialised in research into the practice of incest in western societies. She says that during interviews with victims of incest, she regularly raises the question of cruelty to animals within the home. “I became aware that the theme regularly came up during collective discussion groups,” she said. “It doesn’t happen within all incestuous families, but it is quite frequent. It’s not surprising. The perpetrator shows that he can, at will, damage all that he considers to be subordinate.”

Bénédicte de Villers is an anthropologist and researcher with the University of Liège in Belgium, who in 2015 published a detailed study into the link between domestic violence and cruelty towards animals. “Violence towards animals is fully embedded in patriarchy,” she said. “It is about demonstrating the superiority of the man, to underline that it is he who dominates, it is he who leads.”

In a report published by French animal protection association 'One Voice' on the links between violent behaviour towards animals and that against people, it noted that “almost three quarters of women who are victims of violence, [and] who have a pet, say that their assailant threatened to injure or kill their animal”.

Violence towards domestic animals can prove to be an effective way of terrorising a family. “A violent man who also mistreats domestic animals is suggesting several things,” commented a member of staff, who requested her name to be withheld, of an association offering support to women victims of violence, La Maison Plurielle, based in the Belgian town of Charleroi. “Namely that ‘I know what’s important to you and I destroy it’, and ‘what I do to it I can also do to you’. And if the woman has three kittens, the assailant will knowingly choose to harm her favourite.”

“They [the women] don’t dare talk about it, because they are afraid that they’d be regarded as being ridiculous. However, the animal can truly prevent them from leaving their home. They fear that it would be killed after their departure.”

Dorothée Dussy recalled the story of a female victim of incest, whose father disembowelled the family’s dog on a table during a meal because he was not paid attention to when he asked for some bread. “When the patriarch mistreats the family pet, there is a real lesson given to the witnesses,” she said. “They learn to be afraid and to remain passive in the face of the exercise of violence.”

Meanwhile, the perpetrators of the violence against domestic pets rarely face prosecution, and when they do it often leads to light punishment. “If the guy has no criminal record, he gets a reprimand from the court and a simple fine,” said Reha Hutin of animal welfare foundation ‘30 millions d’amis’. “To reach a conviction for cruelty, the aggressor’s intention [to commit it] must be proven. The defendant says simply that he didn’t intend to, and he’s safe. He gets the message that he can continue to be violent in complete impunity.”       

Gernoble university social psychology professor Laurent Bègue-Shankland believes that by recognising the links between domestic violence and cruelty towards animals, although this is not not systematic, greater coordination between social services and animal protection groups could provide “an extra opportunity to detect violence within families”.

In the US, several states have established platforms for sharing information between the police, animal protection services, vets and social services when any one of them suspects domestic violence towards people or animals. “There are certainly important ethical issues [to be considered], and guarantees to be made, in order that these sensitive personal details are used in accordance with people’s rights,” cautioned Bègue-Shankland.

In Britain, the link is also often used by social services investigating suspected domestic violence, when family or household members may be asked about how their pets are treated, and whether they fear for the animal’s safety. Jacques-Charles Fombonne, a former police officer and now president of France’s oldest animal welfare association, the Société Protectrice des Animaux (SPA), sees every sense in adopting such an approach. “A child, who would have enormous difficulty in denouncing violence committed by a parent, could more easily say if the family pet is mistreated,” he said. “For the professionals listening, it would be a signal.”

In France, where it is officially estimated that around two households out of every three have a pet, such practices are still rare. “When we retrieve an animal that has been mistreated within a family, the police systematically accompany us,” said Reha Hutin. “Through animals, we manage to enter into households where the authorities would not have had access. We automatically alert the social services. After that, it’s for each one to do their work.”

For Jacques-Charles Fombonne, the extent of collaboration could be improved upon. “In France, it is too often felt that what happens within the intimacy of homes doesn’t concern others, and the authorities, the social services and associations are still too shy in sharing information.”

Bénédicte de Villers also argues in favour of such early intervention, and believes that the different bodies concerned need to surpass “solid prejudices”. While some in animal protection associations may perceive domestic violence as concerning only socially marginalised families, some among social services can regard taking an interest in animals as obscuring their task of ensuring the welfare of women and children.

Unlike in the US or Canada, there are no shelter hostels for domestic violence victims which accept their accept pets. “Today, do we have the means to promise a child that if they denounce their violent father and leave the home, their cat will be retrieved? No,” commented Bénédicte de Villers. “The animals must be collected. And what’s more they cannot be only considered as sentries, exploited once more for human requirements.”

But while she believes greater attention to cruel behaviour towards animals can help better detect situations of domestic violence, she also insists on the importance of addressing the institutional failures that lead to the shocking toll of femicides, echoing the criticism voiced by Lawyers for Women president Michelle Dayan. “With every femicide, one finds that the murdered woman had already given the alert, a signal, sometimes filed a complaint,” said de Villers. “Why don’t we begin by listening to women?”

In the particularly horrific case of the killing of Chahinez Daoud by her husband in May this year, it has since emerged that just two months earlier she had lodged a complaint with police against him over his violent behaviour, and that the officer who recorded the complaint had himself been found guilty, in February, of domestic violence and given an eight-month suspended prison sentence. An administrative investigation has since been launched to establish whether the officer failed to properly treat the complaint.

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  • The French version of this article can be found here.

English version, with some addional reporting, by Graham Tearse.

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Reporters Audrey Guiller and Nolwenn Weiler have also co-authored a book Le Viol, un crime presque ordinaire ('Rape: an almost ordinary crime'), published in France in 2011 by Le Cherche midi.