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Although animal cruelty is often described as a warning sign of future human violence, particularly in the prediction of multiple homicides, prior studies reveal mixed support for this notion and lack conceptual clarity in the measurement of such cruelty. This study investigates the quantity and quality of cruelty present in a sample of 23 perpetrators of school massacres from 1988 to 2012. Findings indicate that 43% of the perpetrators commit animal cruelty before schoolyard massacres and that the cruelty is usually directed against anthropomorphized species (dogs and cats) in an up-close manner. The implications of these findings for reducing false positive cases of cruelty are discussed.
Homicide Studies
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DOI: 10.1177/1088767913511459
2014 18: 7 originally published online 11 December 2013Homicide Studies Arnold Arluke and Eric Madfis
Animal Abuse as a Warning Sign of School Massacres: A Critique and
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Homicide Studies
2014, Vol. 18(1) 7 –22
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DOI: 10.1177/1088767913511459
Animal Abuse as a Warning
Sign of School Massacres: A
Critique and Refinement
Arnold Arluke1 and Eric Madfis2
Although animal cruelty is often described as a warning sign of future human
violence, particularly in the prediction of multiple homicides, prior studies reveal
mixed support for this notion and lack conceptual clarity in the measurement of such
cruelty. This study investigates the quantity and quality of cruelty present in a sample
of 23 perpetrators of school massacres from 1988 to 2012. Findings indicate that 43%
of the perpetrators commit animal cruelty before schoolyard massacres and that the
cruelty is usually directed against anthropomorphized species (dogs and cats) in an
up-close manner. The implications of these findings for reducing false positive cases
of cruelty are discussed.
school shootings, subtypes, mass murder, youth/juvenile, prevention, public policy
Although school massacres are rare events, professionals and the public alike continue
to search for reliable warning signs to identify adolescents deemed at risk of commit-
ting such mass murder. Academics, organizations, and advocacy groups hoping to pre-
vent future incidents of school massacres have tried to identify the profile of a typical
school shooter to preemptively identify students before they commit these devastating
acts of mass violence. Groups such as the National School Safety Center (Stephens,
1998), an organization dedicated to reducing school violence, as well as the Federal
Bureau of Investigation (Band & Harpold, 1999), the American Psychological
Association (1999), the International Association of Chiefs of Police (1999), and the
1Northeastern University, Boston, MA, USA
2University of Washington, Tacoma, USA
Corresponding Author:
Arnold Arluke, Department of Sociology, Northeastern University, 360 Huntington Ave., Boston, MA
02115, USA.
511459HSXXXX10.1177/1088767913511459Arluke and MadfisHomicide Studies
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8 Homicide Studies 18(1)
U.S. Department of Education (Dwyer, Osher, & Warger, 1998) have all publicized
and advocated for the use of “checklists” that includes various characteristics of prior
school killers that often contain as many as 20 warning signs of varying specificity.
Since the 1960s, criminologists, psychiatrists, and other investigators have focused
on animal cruelty as symptomatic of later violence-proneness in general and of extreme
violence in particular, whether focusing on serial (Levin & Fox, 1991; Ressler,
Burgess, & Douglas, 1988; Wright & Hensley, 2003) or mass murderers (Hempel,
Meloy, & Richards, 1999; Leary, Kowalski, Smith, & Phillips, 2003; Verlinden,
Hersen, & Thomas, 2000). It makes sense that so much attention would be focused on
animal abuse as a predictor of extreme forms of violence, as it is a widely accepted
notion that violence begets violence and that the best predictor of violence directed
against humans or animals is previous violence directed against humans or animals.
The contemporary literature on violence risk assessment reveals a rather more com-
plicated picture, however (e.g., see Andrade, 2009), as does prior research on the link
between animal cruelty and subsequent violence. Not all research investigating the
predictive value of animal abuse has confirmed its connection with human violence, let
alone multiple homicide (Goodney Lea, 2007; Patterson-Kane & Piper, 2009; Vossekuil,
Fein, Reddy, Borum, & Modzeleski, 2002). In one of the most well-publicized accounts
dating back to 1963, John Macdonald proposed that assaulting small animals was one
of three precursors—along with fire setting and enuresis—of extreme cruelty toward
humans. In a controlled study of personal histories, however, Macdonald (1968) him-
self failed to confirm the hypothesis that violent psychiatric patients would be signifi-
cantly more likely than non-violent psychiatric patients to have abused animals.
Likewise, Patterson-Kane and Piper’s (2009) meta-analysis found that rates of animal
abuse among violent offenders and non-violent individuals were surprisingly similar.
What’s more, in an extensive examination of school shootings conducted jointly by
the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Education (Vossekuil et al., 2002),
researchers found that only 5 of the 41 shooters they investigated had a history of
abuse, leading the authors to conclude that “very few of the attackers were known to
have harmed or killed an animal” (Vossekuil et al., 2002, p. 22).
By contrast, many other studies are fairly supportive of the link between animal
abuse and human violence. In 1985, Kellert and Felthous uncovered significantly
more animal cruelty in the childhoods of “aggressive criminals” than in the childhoods
of “non-aggressive criminals” or “non-criminals.” Estimates of the percentage of
extremely violent individuals who have engaged in animal cruelty tend to be substan-
tially higher than in the general population. In their study of serial killers, Wright and
Hensley (2003) found that just more than 21% of their sample of 354 cases had a
known history of childhood animal cruelty—although the authors failed to examine
either the nature or the extent of that animal cruelty. Ressler et al. (1988) similarly
determined that a large number of their 36 convicted sexual murderers—many of them
serial killers—admitted having engaged in animal cruelty. More than half of these
sexual killers had perpetrated animal abuse as either children or adolescents.
Arluke, Levin, Luke, and Ascione (1999), using official reports of animal cruelty
and criminal records, determined in a comparative study of 153 animal abusers and
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Arluke and Madfis 9
153 of their non-abusive neighbors that the abusers were much more likely to be
engaged in anti-social behavior generally—not only in perpetrating interpersonal vio-
lence but also in committing property offenses, drug offenses, and public disorder
offenses. The finding that animal cruelty may be related to anti-social behavior gener-
ally rather than just human violence may help to explain the failure of previous studies
to consistently uncover significant differences between violent and non-violent crimi-
nals. Moreover, as far as animal abuse being a precursor to human violence is con-
cerned, the animal abuse episodes in the Arluke et al. study did not always precede
human violence. In some cases, children started by abusing people and then later
graduated to animals. The authors suggested that their findings support a deviance
generalization model in which animal cruelty may precede, coincide with, or follow a
broad range of anti-social behaviors—rather than the graduation or escalation hypoth-
esis which argues that animal cruelty precedes subsequent acts of human violence.
Some researchers suggest further refinement of the link to improve its reliability as a
predictor of violence. Beirne (2004) and Piper (2003) questioned the graduation or pro-
gression thesis, in part, because it is premised on a very vague notion of what constitutes
animal cruelty. Every year, for example, organizations like the Massachusetts Society for
the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals receive more than 5,000 cruelty complaints, with
hundreds allegedly being committed by children and adolescents (Arluke & Luke, 1997).
The kinds of cruelty incidents reported to these organizations vary enormously in terms of
the species of victims, the methods used to harm and/or kill animals, and the number of
animals abused by an individual. Many, if not most, of these incidents do not lead to sub-
sequent acts of violence, even in its less extreme forms, let alone the extreme torture and
killing of multiple human victims. The weak or inconsistent evidence connecting animal
abuse with human violence reflects the use of a very broad operationalization of animal
cruelty that neglects contextual motivation and differing perceptions of species. Shooting
birds from a distance may result from boredom, fear of rejection and pressure from friends
or family members, or the desire for food or a recreational challenge as in hunting. Killing
rodents, insects, or snakes may be widely regarded as culturally acceptable and even ben-
eficial, not necessarily indicating severe psychopathology in the perpetrator.
Despite the call to conceptually clarify cruelty, only one study has done so.
According to Levin and Arluke’s (2009) study of sadistic serial killers, a certain type
of animal cruelty likely foreshadows this kind of violence. The authors found that
torturing animals in an up-close and personal way, especially animals like dogs and
cats that have been heavily anthropomorphized in our culture, is a more apt red flag of
this form of extreme violence than is everyday animal abuse.
Given these critiques and refinements of the link, there is a need for researchers to
examine whether there is a relationship between a specific kind of animal cruelty and
subsequent school massacres, as Levin and Arluke did with serial killers. On the sur-
face, we cannot assume that mass and serial killers will derive the same psychological
gratification from abusing animals, and therefore commit the same kinds of cruelty, let
alone commit it as frequently. For example, compared with serial killers, mass murder-
ers are considerably less likely to demonstrate sociopathic or psychopathic personali-
ties (Fox, Levin, & Quinet, 2011).1
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10 Homicide Studies 18(1)
What’s more, unlike serial homicides that typically involve sexual assault, sadistic
torture, and excessive pre- or post-mortem dismemberment and mutilation, mass mur-
derers, including school rampage shooters, rarely engage in these heinous acts (Fox &
Levin, 1998, 2012; Levin & Fox, 1999). Therefore, as school mass killers do not typi-
cally torture or mutilate their human victims, it would logically follow that the same
could apply to how they treat animals.
As a useful warning sign, then, it would be vital to know whether school shooters
who have committed animal abuse tend to commit a particular kind of cruelty in terms
of victims, methods, or frequency, thereby distinguishing the hundreds or thousands of
everyday cruelty cases that do not foreshadow extreme violence from other cases that
do. In other words, when might instances of animal abuse serve as a warning sign of a
possible school massacre, while other instances are merely false positives?
However little is known, much is assumed about the connection between animal
abuse and school killers. There is a widely accepted perception among professionals
and the public alike that many, if not most school shooters, have a prior history of
animal cruelty. For example, a publication distributed by the Humane Society of the
United States (2008) plainly stated, “At the extreme end of the violence spectrum,
serial killers and school shooters almost invariably have histories of abusing animals”
(p. 3). Likewise, a number of scholarly books and articles about animal cruelty char-
acterize school shooters as often having tortured or killed animals as a key warning
sign of their human massacres (see, for example, Muscari, 2004). Even a documentary
film about the link, Beyond Violence: The Human Animal Connection, perpetuates the
perception that animal abuse is a reliable and common warning sign of future school
massacres by citing a few such cases without asking whether these cases are typical or
exceptional among school shooters. Examining the latter question, of course, could
produce findings that challenge the idea that the link commonly occurs.
This perception has been perpetuated as fact without much, if any, scientific evi-
dence to support it. Indeed, in some publications, there are no references to back up
this generalization2 or, if there are references, they often refer to other publications that
repeat this belief, making the “evidence” sheer hearsay and ideology. Much like the
generally held belief that animal abuse often leads to future violence of any sort, let
alone mass murderers, the belief that school shooters frequently abused animals prior
to their massacres is often perpetuated in part by journalists and others who simplify
available research that appears to lend support to their belief. As Piper (2003) insight-
fully observed, such an oversimplified version can develop an energy of its own or a
quasi-autonomous status (Foucault, 1969) that permeates public consciousness and
professional practice, such that the belief is taken as a given.
The actual number of empirical studies exploring the relationship between animal
abuse and school massacres is, in fact, quite small. Leary et al. (2003) found that, of
the 15 school shootings they studied between 1995 and 2001, only 3 cases (Luke
Woodham, Mitchell Johnson, and Kipland Kinkel) demonstrated any evidence of ani-
mal abuse on the part of the juvenile mass killers. Using a far more expansive variety
of sources, however, one research study (Verlinden et al., 2000) has emerged as the
standard empirical validation linking animal cruelty to school massacres. Examining
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Arluke and Madfis 11
8 school massacres that occurred between 1996 and 1999, the Verlinden et al. (2000)
study investigated the prevalence of various warning signs, including but not limited
to prior animal cruelty, among the 10 perpetrators. Although they report that half of
their sample of 10 shooters (Evan Ramsey, Luke Woodham, Kipland Kinkel, Eric
Harris, and Dylan Klebold) allegedly had some history of animal abuse, this propor-
tion, while substantial and worthy of attention by researchers, policy makers, and oth-
ers, seems to fall remarkably below the many hyperbolic reports of its commonness by
advocates of the link, as noted above. This is particularly the case when one considers
how this 50% threshold compares with the prevalence of other so-called warning signs
addressed in the very same study (Verlinden et al., 2000, p. 43), such as experiencing
a “stressful event/loss of status” (80%), exhibiting signs of depression (80%), having
a “preoccupation with violent media/music” (90%), and feeling “rejected by peers”
and being “picked on [and] persecuted” (both 90%), not to mention the characteristics
that all of the sample’s school shooters demonstrated that include having a “fascina-
tion with weapons and explosives,” “blaming others for problems,” and threatening
violence in advance of the attack.
Moreover, Verlinden et al. (2000) did not examine the nature of abuse in these
cases, raising the problem that teachers, parents, and school administrators might use
reports of any kind of animal cruelty as a potential warning sign of a school massacre.
What distinguishes, then, the present study from Verlinden and her colleagues’ research
is that we not only investigated the frequency of animal abuse but also its nature when
it purportedly occurred, building on Levin and Arluke’s (2009) study that sought to
reduce the false positive problem in using animal abuse as a warning sign of extreme
To search for prior history of animal abuse, both authors independently examined 23
cases of school mass shootings from 1988 to 2012 where two or more humans were
killed by shooters who were 20 years old or less. The 23 cases were located via the
Lexis-Nexis newspaper database, numerous academic and government-sponsored
publications (such as Larkin, 2009; Newman & Fox, 2009; Newman, Fox, Roth,
Mehta, & Harding, 2004; Virginia Tech Review Panel, 2007), popular press sources
(Bower, 2001; Lieberman, 2009), and various Internet sites that compile lists of school
violence incidents (Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, n.d.; List of School
Shootings in the United States, n.d.; Trump, n.d.) were consulted to gather as compre-
hensive a list as possible. Search terms included the name of the school shooter along
with the following terms: school massacre/killings, animal abuse/cruelty/torture/kill-
ing, animal/dog/cat/pet. Searches using these terms were conducted on Google,
Google Scholar, and the Lexis-Nexis database.
In addition to recording whether individual school shooters allegedly abused ani-
mals, we also noted the features of this abuse when details were given. More specifi-
cally, following Levin and Arluke (2009), we noted (a) the closeness of abusers to their
victims in terms of species (i.e., “higher” vs. “lower” animals), (b) personal familiarity
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12 Homicide Studies 18(1)
(i.e., “family/neighbor pet” vs. “stray or wild animal”), and (c) the methods of abuse,
whether “up close” (i.e., direct contact with victims, such as beating) or “remote” (i.e.,
Although our method is in keeping with prior studies and discussions of the link
that have also relied on available reports in the media, we recognize the limitations of
using these data. One problem with relying exclusively on news reports, biographical
sketches, and commentary by mental health professionals is that animal abuse fre-
quently goes unreported to authorities and even informally to intimates (Arluke, 2012),
because animal victims cannot report their harm to humans and signs of abuse can
easily be missed or written off as caused by non-abuse.
Furthermore, when there are reports of animal abuse, their accuracy must be care-
fully assessed because many if not most are unsubstantiated, not directly witnessed by
peers or based on physical evidence of harmed animals. For example, our knowledge
regarding the number of adolescent shooters who appear to have some history of ani-
mal abuse is based entirely upon their “boasting” about animal cruelty to friends,
perhaps as a way of showing their dangerousness. Thus, assertions of animal cruelty
in the life histories of school shooters may likewise be exaggerated.3
We found reports of prior animal cruelty in the histories of 10 of 23 (43%) school
shooters, somewhat less than the 50% of the cases reported by Verlinden et al. (2000).
This proportion is generally consistent with prior studies of other kinds of extreme
killing such as serial murder, where the percentage of serial killers known to have
abused animals in their youth ranges from 21% (Wright & Hensley, 2003) to 46%
(Ressler et al., 1988). That said, sadistic serial killers appear to commit animal abuse
far more commonly, at a rate approaching 90%, if all kinds of animal abuse, not just
the sadistic hands-on variety, are considered (Levin & Arluke, 2009).
When examining the nature of these cruelty incidents, our results are consistent
with Levin and Arluke’s (2009) finding that extreme killers typically commit a differ-
ent kind of animal abuse than everyday people. While 28% of Levin and Arluke’s
undergraduate student sample admitted having been abusive toward animals, the pro-
portion of students who reported abusing dogs and cats was substantially smaller—
specifically, only 5% overall. Just 13% of all respondents admitted employing an
up-close and personal method, such as strangulation, bludgeoning, or beating to death.
When combined, only 1 in their sample of 260 students admitted to using an up-close
and personal method of abuse on a dog or cat.
By comparison, when closely examining the nature of animal abuse committed by
the 10 school shooters in our sample, 90% of these animal abusing school shooters
apparently committed cruelty in an up-close and personal manner. Thus, this does lend
support to prior scholarship (Levin & Arluke, 2009), indicating that the up-close and
personal method of abuse is more likely to be an antecedent to extreme violence than
more everyday or “typical” kinds of cruelty (as illustrated in Arluke, 2002). Reports
alleging animal abuse by school shooters often, but not always, described forms of
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Arluke and Madfis 13
cruelty that involved coming into direct contact with victims. For example, the
Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold boasted about mutilating animals
for fun, a type of cruelty that required hands-on control of the victim and tactile cut-
ting. Kipland Kinkel’s attacks on animals also illustrated the up-close and personal
variety of animal abuse; he allegedly decapitated cats, dissected live squirrels, blew up
cows, set a live cat on fire, and put firecrackers in gophers and cats (Tallichet &
Hensley, 2004). Other school shooters burned, drowned, kicked, or smashed their ani-
mal victims. Only a minority of school shooters (10%) apparently employed more
remote methods to harm or kill animals, such as shooting them, which did not require
them to be near, let alone touch, their victims.
In terms of the relationship of school shooters to their non-human victims, 70% of
shooters who abused animals targeted dogs and cats, but not usually in their own home
or neighborhood. Only 30% of animal abusing shooters chose familiar victims that
were either the shooter’s own family or a neighbor’s pet dogs or cats. One notable
example of targeting a higher species victim known to the killer is Luke Woodham, a
Mississippi school shooter who described in his own journal how he tortured and
killed his own dog by beating it in a plastic bag and setting it on fire (Langman,
2009b). In another case, a neighbor of Andrew Golden alleges that he killed her cat by
shooting it with a pellet gun and placing it with her garbage (Pescara-Kovach, 2005).
Alternatively, 70% of these shooters abused victims that were strange to them—either
not owned by their families or neighbors or simply stray or wild animals. This is a
proportion almost identical to that reported by Levin and Arluke’s (2009) study of
serial killers where 71% of their cases tended to choose victims unknown to them.
Similarly, in that study animal abusing serial killers (88%) often targeted dogs and cats
as did our animal abusing mass murderers who also (80%) often selected our culture’s
two most beloved and anthropomorphized species.
Finally, we found four cases (18%) where school shooters purportedly displayed
empathy for and attachment to some animals, and even expressed distress when wit-
nessing animals being harmed. Such paradoxical reports are extremely rare in the link
literature with one exception; Arluke et al. (1999) reported the case of the Australian
Martin Bryant, who killed 35 people but was also known as an “animal lover” who
kept 30 to 40 cats and dogs in his home toward whom he exhibited marked compas-
sion. Of course, evidence in these cases is as limited as it is in positive cases of the
link, making it no more convincing, but equally deserving of attention by researchers.
For example, Charles Andrew Williams shot and killed two at his California school
and wounded 13 others. One source (Blanco, n.d.) claims that Andrew’s best friend
Scott liked to tell stories about his concern for various small animals:
It seems he and Andy were walking one day and found a frog in a puddle. Scott hit the
frog with a stick and it died. Andy was very upset and made Scott stay there with him to
be sure the frog was dead. Andy asked him “How would you feel if a giant frog came by
and hit you with a stick and you died?” Scott says that Andy always had a thing about
animals. Andy would catch field mice and turn them into pets. Then when they died Andy
would make little cardboard coffins for them and he would make Scott attend the funeral
he had for his mice. Andy would even make little tombstones for their graves.
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14 Homicide Studies 18(1)
Somewhat similarly, the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass killer, Adam Lanza,
was reported to be an “ethical vegan” because he did not want to hurt animals
(McDonough, 2012; Willis, 2012). Unlike the Williams and Lanza cases, where there
was no known prior animal abuse, the case of Eric Harris, one of the two Columbine
killers, presents apparent animal empathy alongside animal abuse. According to
Harris’s friends, “two weeks before Eric Harris stormed Columbine High School with
guns in his hands, bombs in his pockets and payback on his mind, his biggest worry
was his seizure-wracked dog. The sick pooch was all he talked about on a recent date”
(Briggs & Blevins, 1999). In addition, there is at least one report in the media that
Harris “cried when his dog died” ( Similarly, Andrew
Golden, who along with Mitchell Johnson killed four students and one teacher, shot a
dog and cat, but also reportedly “cared deeply for animals and would care for them”
(Alter, 1998).
Discussion and Conclusion
Our results support those of Verlinden et al. (2000) regarding the frequency of the link
between animal abuse and school massacres; namely, somewhat less than half of the
shooters in both studies had some history of prior animal abuse. These findings ques-
tion the link’s robustness as a warning sign in cases of extreme violence.
The vital question, however, remains—Do these results set the bar too low for ani-
mal abuse to be considered a valid and useful warning sign of future school shootings?
Many prior scholars (Borum, 2000; Fox & Burstein, 2010; Fox et al., 2011; Sewell &
Mendelsohn, 2000; Vossekuil et al., 2002) have criticized the overuse of reductionist
profiles and simplistic checklists to identify youth at risk of violence. As Sewell and
Mendelsohn (2000) pointed out, many students who fit general profiles never commit
school violence of any kind, while numerous students who have planned and com-
pleted attacks at their schools did not closely match prior profiles. In fact, a systematic
investigation of targeted school shooting incidents revealed that there simply “is no
accurate or useful ‘profile’ of students who engaged in targeted school violence”
whether demographic, psychological, or social (Vossekuil et al., 2002, p. 11). Due to
the fact that some checklists have featured general warning signs such as a “minimal
interest in academics,” this approach has been soundly criticized for utilizing criteria
that are vague and broad enough to apply to the majority of any student body (Fox &
Burstein, 2010, p. 69; Fox, Levin, & Quinet, 2011). While standardized psychological
tests and instruments used by mental health professionals have been found to be some-
what accurate in certain contexts with violence in general (Reddy et al., 2001), there is
no empirical evidence which suggests that they are successful in predicting targeted
school violence with pre-selected victims (Borum, 2000).
Our findings lend support to the myriad extant critiques regarding the use of checklists
and profiles to identify youth at risk of violence in two significant respects. First, in many
cases of violence, there may be no known evidence of animal abuse of any sort, as our
results indicate. In addition, when there is prior animal abuse, only a relatively small subset
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Arluke and Madfis 15
of abuse cases—acts of up-close and personal cruelty in particular—may point to future
extreme violence.
By raising the bar for establishing animal abuse as a warning sign of potential
school massacres, our results enhance animal abuse’s utility in this regard by detailing
the kind of abuse that likely occurs when school shooters have such a history, details
that are missing in prior discussions of animal abuse’s link to school massacres. The
description of animal abuse in these cases—a tendency to harm dogs and cats, use up-
close and personal methods of abuse, and pick unfamiliar victims—is similar to the
kind of animal abuse committed by the sadistic serial killers studied by Levin and
Arluke (2009). Why is it the case, then, that school shooters and sadistic serial killers
who abuse animals do so in such a similar manner?
Despite the different personality profiles and motivations of school shooters and
serial killers noted earlier (see Fox & Levin, 1998, or Fox & Levin, 2012, for a further
review of these distinctions), many do share some common denominators that might
account for the similarity in their methods of abuse and choice of victims. Our results
suggest at least one such commonality underlying extreme violence against humans
and animals in these cases. Goldberg (1996) has suggested that the kind of sadistic
violence committed by serial killers results from the humiliation and internalized
shame certain individuals experience during their childhood. To compensate, they
develop a generalized malevolence whereby they inflict pain and suffering onto oth-
ers. School shooters, too, often experience humiliation and shame because they have
been severely bullied for prolonged periods (Levin & Madfis, 2009; Madfis & Levin,
2013). Whether for mass or serial killers, the drive to harm animals may be a quest to
exert power and dominance over another being, albeit a non-human animal.
The desire to exercise power and control over the lives of others may be shared by
sadistic serial killers and school shooters; both decide who lives and who dies. With
their own hands, they regulate the degree of pain and suffering experienced by their
victims. Certain cases of animal cruelty and human destructiveness are similarly moti-
vated: They serve to compensate for a person’s feelings of powerlessness and vulner-
ability (Kellert & Felthous, 1985), and they give such an individual a sense of strength
and superiority. In this regard, Dadds, Turner, and McAloon (2002) distinguished
between developmental immaturity and malice in the motivation for abusing animals.
The immature child may never progress to the commission of human violence. But the
malicious youngster rehearses his sadistic attacks—perhaps on animals, perhaps on
other people, perhaps on both—and continues into his adult years to perpetrate the
same sorts of sadistic acts on human beings. His attacks on animals are serious and
personal. He chooses “socially valued” or culturally humanized animals—for exam-
ple, dogs and cats—against which to carry out his sadistic aims, but he is likely to
repeat his abusive behavior on a variety of animals (Dadds et al., 2002). If he later
finds a socially acceptable means of compensating for his sense of powerlessness, then
he might very well escape the grip of violence perpetrated against humans. If not, his
early experiences with animal cruelty may become a training ground for later commit-
ting assaults, rape, and even murder.
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16 Homicide Studies 18(1)
Torture may be the variable that links animal cruelty with serious acts of human
violence. Animal abuse may, in certain cases, provide a child or an adolescent with a
way of reducing feelings of inferiority, at least temporarily, by displacing the aggres-
sion toward a vulnerable animal. In the short term, some psychologists (Bossard &
Boll, 1966) have even argued that there may actually be some sort of therapeutic
advantage for children desperately in need of feeling a sense of personal power. In the
long run, however, animal abuse seems also to teach young people that violence is a
satisfactory method for gaining a sense of superiority (Arluke, 2006). It appears then
that the torture of animals early on may have served as a rehearsal for the human vio-
lence that came later. Inflicting pain and suffering may be indicative of a strong sadis-
tic impulse—a need to feel powerful and strong at the expense of victims. The hands-on
approach suggests that these killers seek to control their victims. They may gain plea-
sure from their victims’ pain; they may feel superior to the extent that they degrade and
belittle victims. Certainly, the choice of pets as victims for both kinds of killers makes
sense. They are inclined, during their childhood and adolescence, to choose “socially
valued” or culturally humanized animals—pet dogs and cats—against which to carry
out their brutal aims.
Of course, not all of the school shooters in our sample targeted cats and dogs for
abuse. Indeed, we found occasional evidence of the reverse—the presence of pur-
ported kindness, concern, and empathy for animals, whether these animals were their
own pet dogs or unknown wild lower animals. These paradoxical cases reveal a more
complex if not contradictory picture of the role of human–animal relationships in the
personal histories of school killers, and one that was not present in Levin and Arluke’s
(2009) study of sadistic serial killers. In four cases, or 18% of our sample, these killers
also allegedly demonstrated empathy toward and attachment to some animals, making
claims for the link far less convincing. How might we understand these paradoxical
It may be that school shooters, and mass killers as a whole, frequently identify as
the mistreated underdog (Fox & Levin, 1998), unlike psychopathic and narcissistic
serial killers who far more typically see themselves as Nietzschian supermen on a
higher plane of existence than the rest of humanity (Gray, 2010; Knight, 2006;
Schlesinger, 1998). School shooters are often students who have been bullied, picked
on, and marginalized (Burgess et al., 2006; Kimmel & Mahler, 2003; Klein, 2006;
Larkin, 2007; Leary et al., 2003; Levin & Madfis, 2009; Madfis & Levin, 2013; Meloy
et al., 2001; Newman et al., 2004). In fact, many of them have made explicit state-
ments that they are killing to make a statement about how “you can only push people
so far” and explicitly frame their attacks as vengeance against people who wronged
them. For example, in the “multimedia manifesto” that Cho sent to MSNBC on the day
of his attack at Virginia Tech, he wrote that:
You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today, but you decided to
spill my blood. You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option. The decision
was yours. Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off, you Apostles of
Sin. Congratulations. You have succeeded in extinguishing my life. Vandalizing my heart
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Arluke and Madfis 17
wasn’t enough for you. Raping my soul wasn’t enough for you. Committing emotional
sodomy on me wasn’t enough for you. Every single second wasted on your wanton
hedonism and menacing sadism could have been used to prevent today. Ask yourselves,
What was I doing all this time? All these months, hours, seconds. Only if you could have
been the victim of your crimes. Only if you could have been the victim . . . To you sadistic
snobs, I may be nothing but a piece of dog shit. You have vandalized my heart, raped my
soul, and torched my conscious again and again. You thought it was one pathetic, void
life that you were extinguishing. Thanks to you, I die, like Jesus Christ, to inspire
generations of the Weak and Defenseless people—my Brothers, Sisters, and Children—
that you fuck. (Langman, n.d.)
Thus, it is not entirely inconsistent for some school shooters (such as Charles
Andrew Williams and Adam Lanza, in particular) to have identified and empathized
with animals as less powerful beings. At the same time, finding apparent evidence of
a rather specific form of animal abuse in the histories of about half of our school
shooter sample suggests that the false positive problem can be substantially reduced
by limiting predictive acts of animal abuse to those in which dogs and cats are tortured
in a hands-on manner. Animal abuse, as broadly defined, may be pervasive, but not
necessarily predictive of subsequent extreme violence against humans. By focusing
upon incidents of animal cruelty that rarely occur among the broad population and
which resemble the modus operandi of many school killers—that is, targeting dogs
and cats and using a hands-on method—vastly reduces the false positive problem.
Using a considerably narrower standard will undoubtedly cause some cases of future
violence to slip between the cracks, but it will also reduce the tendency to identify and
unduly stigmatize those children for whom animal abuse is part of a temporary phase
as potential Newtown shooters and Columbine killers.
Future research examining the purported link between animal abuse and subse-
quent extreme violence should build on and extend the present study by studying the
link between cruelty and mass murder, more generally. In particular, as this study
solely focused upon school massacre perpetrators below the age of 21, older mass kill-
ers may demonstrate different frequencies or forms of animal abuse due to increased
developmental maturity. Likewise, it would be worthwhile to explore whether or not
other forms of mass murder (such as those perpetrated by workplace avengers, family
annihilators, and disgruntled citizens) demonstrate animal abuse at similar rates, with
similar victims, and by similar means as Levin and Arluke’s (2009) serial killers and
our sample of school mass murderers.
Finally, as our findings demonstrate that school shooters are not a monolithic group,
with only 43% having a history of animal abuse, future research should identify and
explore identifiable patterns and distinctions between and among these perpetrators.
Langman’s (2009a, 2009b) distinction between traumatized, psychotic, and psycho-
pathic school shooters does not delineate abusers from non-abusers (though both of
the killers he described as psychopathic, Golden and Harris, harmed animals), but
there may be some notable commonalities or characteristics that distinguish school
shooters who have abused animals from those who have not. For example, it would be
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18 Homicide Studies 18(1)
a worthy pursuit for scholars to investigate whether animal abusing school shooters
share particular similarities with sadistic and sexual killers but not with other school
shooters who have not abused animals and/or who have expressed a concern for ani-
mal welfare.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of
this article.
1. Langman (2009a, 2009b) is notable for arguing that some school rampage shooters (such
as Andrew Golden and Eric Harris) have been psychopaths, though he also labels many
more of them as either traumatized or psychotic.
2. For example, without supporting evidence, the Humane Society of the United States (2011)
claimed, “Of seven school shootings that took place across the country between 1997 and
2001, all involved boys who had previously committed acts of animal cruelty.”
3. For example, in at least one case, a school shooter denied reports of his animal abuse.
According to Lieberman (2009), Michael Carneal claims that he never tossed a cat into
a bonfire. The popular press’s tendency to base their claims about histories of animal
abuse upon rumors and post hoc claims may also help explain the discrepancy in findings
between our study and that of Vossekuil, Fein, Reddy, Borum, and Modzeleski (2002)
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Author Biographies
Arnold Arluke, PhD, is a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Northeastern University.
His research examines conflicts and contradictions in human-animal relationships. Most
recently, he published Beauty and the Beast: Human-Animal Relations as Revealed in Real
Photo Postcards, 1905-1935 (with Robert Bogdan, Syracuse University Press, 2010) and The
Photographed Cat: Picturing Human-Feline Ties, 1895-1940 (with Lauren Rolfe, Syracuse
University Press, 2013).
Eric Madfis, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Washington,
Tacoma, where his research focuses on youth violence, criminological theory, and the expan-
sion of punitive discipline and criminalization in educational institutions. His work has been
published in American Behavioral Scientist, Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, The Social
Science Journal, and Critical Criminology. He is currently in the process of completing a book
that explores perceptions of and reactions to threats of rampage shootings in American public
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... Notorious U.S. serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer and the "BTK Killer" describe beginning acts of cruelty on animals before moving on to committing similar acts on humans (DeMello 2021). Although some estimate the proportion of mass murderers, school shooters, and serial killers who have a history of animal cruelty to be much higher, conservative estimates still indicate at least 40% of mass murders have history of animal cruelty in youth (Arluke and Madfis 2014). ...
... Overall, children were more likely to commit the abusive act with their own hands or feet. Studies have identified that these more personal, hands-on abusive acts warrant concern and can be an indicator of future acts of extreme violence (Arluke and Madfis 2014). In fact, 90% of child perpetrators of school shootings who also had a history of animal cruelty abused animals in an up-close personal manner (Arluke and Madfis 2014), as did 80% of a sample of incarcerated men ("hit animal"; Henderson et al. 2011). ...
Full-text available
The well-being of children and non-human animals (subsequently referred to as animals) is often intertwined. Communities are unlikely to be able to best protect humans from abuse and harm unless they are working to ensure the safety of animals who reside there as well. This study is the first to utilize U.S. animal control report data and narratives to explore how children are involved in cases of animal cruelty. Children engage in abusive acts toward animals, alone, or along with peers and/or adults. Children were found to inflict abuse most often with their hands or feet as opposed to with a weapon or other object. A total of 85% of animal cruelty perpetrated by children was toward a dog or cat. Key differences between how children are involved in acts of cruelty to companion animals compared with acts involving wild animals are described and warrant further study. The cases of animal abuse or neglect reported by children were among the most severe in the study, and often involved an adult perpetrator known to the child. Neighbors rarely report child abuse or intimate partner violence in the United States, but 89% of the animal cruelty cases involving children in this study were reported by a neighbor or passerby. Although children involved in reports as a perpetrator or reporter were most often in early adolescence, children involved in cross-reports between child welfare and animal control were often under the age of 5. Improved cross-reporting and stronger partnerships between human and animal welfare agencies may provide opportunity for earlier intervention and is likely to better many human and animal lives.
... The trend observed to date shows that the main animals that children abuse or mistreat are small animals such as rodents, birds, and reptiles, followed by dogs and cats [104], though other authors argue that cats and dogs are the most frequent victims [16]. Animal cruelty directed against anthropomorphized species (dogs and cats), especially in an up-close manner, is a more apt red flag of the development of extreme violence [105]. In general, boys are twice as likely to be involved in animal cruelty as girls [8,70,75]. ...
Full-text available
For years now, the importance of animal cruelty has been gaining recognition in the industrialized cities of the West. Animal cruelty encompasses any act that causes a non-human animal unnecessary pain or suffering, including negligence, abandonment, abuse, torture, bestiality, and even theriocide. This represents a red flag for society as a whole because people who commit such acts can escalate violence and direct it to other individuals. Animal cruelty and interpersonal violence—as well as other socially undesirable conduct such as bullying, antisocial personality disorder, rape, and serial murder—are closely related, so timely diagnoses of either one can help prevent acts of aggression. It is necessary, therefore, to analyze and try to understand whether there are early indicators that may help identify potentially violent individuals. It is well known that kids from homes with actual violence in their homes show a high tendency to reproduce such behaviors with both animals and other people. In conclusion, much research and rethinking of the importance of the veterinarian in detecting animal abuse and cruelty is needed to help detect and prevent cases of interpersonal violence that may arise over time.
... The homicidal urges experienced by the perpetrator also manifested themselves through the killing of animals, which is consistent with previous research (e.g., Arluke & Madfis, 2014;Arluke et al., 2018) that such activity is a precursor behavior of mass shooters, particularly those who are younger, white males. At least 10 people provided statements after the shooting highlighting his preoccupation with killing small animals like frogs, squirrels, and even a duck, something that he admitted to in his custodial interrogation. ...
The 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida reignited a discourse about safety and prevention that often follows such tragedies. Using a case study approach, we analyze the events leading up to the shooting (via official records from law enforcement and the shooting's review commission) to identify missed opportunities for intervention, de-escalation, and ultimately prevention. The Path to Intended Violence model is employed to highlight the perpetrator's escalating behaviors from grievance through the attack itself. The lessons learned then are utilized to offer recommendations for schools and communities seeking to prevent similar mass violence attacks.
... Some evidence indicates that serious school violence perpetrators often have prior arrests or histories of antisocial conduct (Anderson et al., 2001;Arluke & Madfis, 2014;Bender et al., 2001;Gerard et al., 2016;Goughan, Cerio, & Meyers, 2001;Holland et al., 2019;McGee & DeBernardo, 1999;Rajan & Lane, 2018;Vossekuil et al., 2004;Weisbrot, 2008;Wike & Fraser, 2009). The prevalence of psychological distress may be negligible amongst school homicide offenders and shooters, though research findings can be ambiguous (Anderson et al., 2001;Ash, 2016;Gerard et al., 2016;Ioannou et al., 2015;Muschert, 2007;Rocque, 2012), and the relative importance of this variable seems to vary by multi-versus single-victim incidents (Holland et al., 2019). ...
This study uses open source information to examine school shootings in the United States for the 1990–2016 period. We innovatively created a national-level database to address the gaps in existing research and identified 652 school shootings. These shootings included 473 intentional shootings (encompassing 354 with known offenders and 119 with unknown perpetrators), 102 suicide only shootings, 73 accidental discharges and 4 legally justified shootings. Most school shootings were committed outside of the school building (e.g., school yard), by non-students, during non-school hours and were sometimes motivated by non-school issues such as gang disputes. Almost 56% of the intentional shootings resulted in no deaths and mass homicide shootings were outliers. No clear time trend emerged. Importantly, proportionally more of the non-juvenile offenders committed fatal shootings. While the vast majority of attacks targeted high schools, those against elementary schools were more deadly. We outline how these findings could aid policymakers, and highlight issues that future research could address with these data. We also describe our open source collection procedures, the amount and type of information uncovered, and how we assessed their quality. We aim to set a standard for more transparent open source data collection processes and enhance the data’s rigor to provide important context to the larger policy discussions about school shootings.
Considerable growth has occurred in research on various aspects of human-animal interaction in recent years. This chapter provides an integrated overview of the current state of empirical research in each of the four core domains of veterinary social work: animal-assisted interventions, animal-related grief and bereavement, compassion fatigue and management, and links between animal and human maltreatment. We discuss strengths and limitations of available knowledge alongside opportunities for future research and, where applicable, data-driven implications for programs and policy.KeywordsAnimal crueltyAnimal-related grief and bereavementAutismCompassion fatigueFamily violenceOlder adultsResilienceTrauma
This chapter offers a review of the literature of the nature of studying mass violence. It is often problematic, difficult, or nearly impossible due to small sample sizes, incomplete or inaccurate information, or discrepancies even deciding what exactly “mass violence” is. This chapter reviews the literature for methodological approaches, summarizes qualitative and quantitative methods and findings, and discusses the challenges of mass violence methodologies while also proposing solutions, suggestions, and directions for future research.
Technical Report
This research brief will explore what we know about foiled and failed mass school shootings - referring to incidents and plots that resulted in zero victim casualties. Findings will illustrate the common mass school shooting perpetrator and incident characteristics, as well as what contributed to these attacks being thwarted. Actionable takeaways based on the research will illustrate future strategies for prevention and intervention including leakage and warning signs, as well as situational crime prevention.
In the decade since the publication of the first edition of The Cambridge Handbook of Forensic Psychology, the field has expanded into areas such as social work and education, while maintaining the interest of criminal justice researchers and policy makers. This new edition provides cutting-edge and comprehensive coverage of the key theoretical perspectives, assessment methods, and interventions in forensic psychology. The chapters address substantive topics such as acquisitive crime, domestic violence, mass murder, and sexual violence, while also exploring emerging areas of research such as the expansion of cybercrime, particularly child sexual exploitation, as well as aspects of terrorism and radicalisation. Reflecting the global reach of forensic psychology and its wide range of perspectives, the international team of contributors emphasise diversity and cross-reference between adults, adolescents, and children to deliver a contemporary picture of the discipline.
Homicide is as old as human existence and, likewise, mass murder and serial killings are not recent phenomena. Having adopted formal definitions in the 1980s’s both mass murder and serial homicide are often mistakenly equated; however, the two phenomena are distinct as evidenced by wider patterns of violence, victimization, and psychopathology. This chapter provides an overview of mass murder and serial homicide including definitions and selected case studies. Seeking to clarify the distinctions between perpetrators of mass murder and serial homicide, this chapter also provides information on the psychopathology of each type of offender and provides a brief examination of the developmental experiences and victim choice of the perpetrators.
Full-text available
The guide presents a brief summary of research on violence prevention, intervention and crisis response in schools and: * Notes that effective prevention, intervention and crisis strategies work best in schools that focus on high standards of achievement and discipline; involve families and communities; emphasize positive relationships among students and staff; openly discuss safety; offer extended before and after-school activities for students; and identify problems and assess progress toward solutions. * Describes early and imminent warning signs including social withdrawal; excessive feelings of isolation, being alone and rejection; being a victim of violence; expression of violence in writings or drawings; and past history of violent, aggressive behavior and discipline problems, which, when viewed in context, can signal a troubled child -- and presents principles to ensure these signs will not be misinterpreted. * Recommends that effective intervention efforts to improve the behavior of troubled children include a system of coordinated school and community services; parental involvement; and input from students. * Gives suggestions for developing a violence prevention and response plan outlining ways for the entire school to spot behavioral and emotional signs that indicate a child is troubled and resources that can be used to create safe environments. * Discusses ways to respond in the aftermath of a crisis to ensure a coordinated community effort; and * Provides resources and references for schools and parents who want more information.
Full-text available
On April 20, 1999, two Colorado teenagers went on a shooting rampage at Columbine High School. That day, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed twelve fellow students and a teacher, as well as wounding twenty-four other people, before they killed themselves. Although there have been other books written about the tragedy, this is the first serious, impartial investigation into the cultural, environmental, and psychological causes of the massacre. Based on first-hand interviews and a thorough reading of the relevant literature, Ralph Larkin examines the numerous factors that led the two young men to plan and carry out their deed. For Harris and Klebold, Larkin concludes, the carnage was an act of revenge against the "jocks" who had harassed and humiliated them, retribution against evangelical students who acted as if they were morally superior, an acting out of the mythology of right-wing paramilitary organization members to "die in a blaze of glory," and a deep desire for notoriety. Rather than simply looking at Columbine as a crucible for all school violence, Larkin places the tragedy in its proper context, and in doing so, examines its causes and meaning.
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This chapter is an international extension of previous work, in which the authors developed a sequential explanatory model of the factors implicated in American school rampages (cases in which three or more people are killed or injured by current or former students of the targeted school or college) and identified the following cumulative stages: chronic strain, uncontrolled strain, acute strain, the planning stage, and the massacre. Here, recent cases of rampage school shootings outside of the United States are examined, applying the same selection criteria as the previous American study, in order to determine the extent to which the multi-stage explanatory model may be generalized internationally. Despite important international variations, the model is found to apply remarkably well to international incidents of multiple-victim school shootings and suggest implications for prevention and future research.
Psychiatrists define cruelty to animals as a psychological problem or personality disorder. Legally, animal cruelty is described by a list of behaviors. In Just a Dog, Arnold Arluke argues that our current constructs of animal cruelty are decontextualized-imposed without regard to the experience of the groups committing the act. Yet those who engage in animal cruelty have their own understandings of their actions and of themselves as actors. In this fascinating book, Arluke probes those understandings and reveals the surprising complexities of our relationships with animals. Just a Dog draws from interviews with more than 250 people, including humane agents who enforce cruelty laws, college students who tell stories of childhood abuse of animals, hoarders who neglect the welfare of many animals, shelter workers who cope with the ethics of euthanizing animals, and public relations experts who use incidents of animal cruelty for fundraising purposes. Through these case studies, Arluke shows how the meaning of "cruelty" reflects and helps to create identities and ideologies.
Reviews evidence for the significance of childhood cruelty to animals as a predictor of later violence toward humans. Moves are underway in the United States (US) and Britain to encourage communication and cross-fertilisation between animal welfare and child protection and crime prevention services. Literature on healthy versus deviant child-pet interactions is reviewed, with particular regard to the prediction of later violence. Assessment and definitional issues are addressed. The discussion culminates with a summary of substantive findings and the identification of several research designs that are needed to clarify the potential of early identification and remediation of child cruelty to animals as a mental health promotion and violence prevention strategy.
The Epistemology of MurderViolence and Human NatureThe Gestation of Terrorists and Serial KillersConclusions
The execution-style murder of 14 family members by a rejected and controlling middle-aged man in rural Arkansas, the vengeful slayings of six coworkers by a disgruntled postal worker in a Royal Oak, Michigan, post office, and the indiscriminate slaughter of 23 customers at a Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, by a gunman apparently gone berserk are dramatic examples of the large and growing number of mass killings that have captured the attention and anxiety of Americans over the past two decades. Mass murders or massacres—the killing of four or more victims during a single event—are both frightening and tragic. They are frightening because they could happen to anyone, anytime, anyplace. Unlike other crimes, they are as likely to occur in a suburban shopping mall as in an urban slum, as likely in a small southern town as in a big city. They are tragic because so many innocent people die.
Serial homicide, as a psychopathoiogicai condition, has been described as Song ago as 1886. The traits and characteristics of serial murderers are varied, as are [he theories that attempt to explain their motivation. Theorists have emphasized, for example, traumatic events in early life, sexual disturbance and dynamics, and ncurobiological abnormalities. In the past fifteen years, as narcissistic disturbance in general has been better understood, a relationship has been noted between pathological narcissism and serial homicide. Narcissistic personality disorder, narcissistic injury, underlying feelings of inadequacy and humiliation, self-glorifying compensatory fantasies, and the erection of narcissistic defenses have ail been mentioned as important factors in understanding the serial killer. An illustrative case report, which encompasses many of these characteristics, is presented here along with a review of clinical research, theory, and iindings.