|Phil Arkow is an advocate for animals and humans.|
We were recently fortunate enough to meet Phil Arkow, who leads the National LinkCoalition looking at the association between animal abuse and interpersonal violence. Reporting of suspected animal abuse to authorities is not mandatory in Australia, though it is in other countries and Phil strongly believes it should be here. He talks about how he developed an interest in this often challenging area.
What’s your day job?
I’m coordinator of the National Link Coalition – the (inter)national resource center on The LINK between animal abuse and interpersonal violence. It’s also my night job. And my weekend job. In between I also teach a few college courses on animal-assisted therapy and human-animal interactions.
How did you come to specialise in the link between interpersonal violence and violence towards animals?
Three events in the 1980s got me thinking that the animal welfare movement wasn’t making as much progress as it could be. I was working for an animal shelter in the State of Colorado and was having difficulty – as all animal advocates do – convincing legislators, funders, and our counterparts in human services that animal issues matter.
- A veterinarian told me that he was mandated to report suspected child abuse (Colorado was the only one of our 50 states in which DVMs were specifically named as such) but that it would be inconceivable for him to report suspected animal abuse because he might lose a client.
- I saw four drawings made by children in a domestic violence shelter; three of them depicted animals that had been tortured by the abuser as a means to coerce and control the family.
- Our shelter approached our city council for a very small $3,000 additional allocation for our animal control budget which led to a massive debate about why animal control should get funding. Meanwhile, council quickly approved a $300,000 cost overrun to pave a street... and no one on council even knew where the street was, but asphalt is something they can comprehend. I realized that something was wrong with the picture, and that decision-makers do not care about moral or ethical issues affecting animals. They care about tangible services and economics and, more significantly, how animal abuse impacts human safety and welfare.
For those who don’t know, how are interpersonal violence and violence towards animals linked?
It takes 4 main forms:
- domestic violence. Animals become pawns in the power-and-control mechanisms marking intimate partner violence and are threatened or killed as a coercive control to warn the spouse of that will happen to her if she asserts any independence. Thousands of women and their children delay leaving abusive situations in fear for what would happen to their animals.
- risk factors for children. Children and adolescents who perpetrate or witness animal cruelty are more likely to develop antisocial behaviours, either concurrently or in adulthood, which can escalate into violent acts against people.
- elder abuse. Animal hoarding tends to skew towards an older demographic and frequently co-occurs with animal neglect or self-neglect by the senior.
- animal abuse as a predictor of criminal behavior. Extensive studies (including several classics in Australia) have documented histories of animal cruelty in the biographies of criminals. Animal abuse has been found to be a better clue for screening potential suspects than histories of other crimes, but unfortunately cruelty cases are so often trivialized that they do not work their way into criminal databases.
You have championed mandatory reporting of suspected animal abuse by veterinarians. Others argue that mandatory reporting may prevent victims of abuse from seeking veterinary care for animals. Why do you consider mandatory reporting so important?
We believe the veterinarian should be as proactive in preventing animal abuse as physicians are in responding to child maltreatment. There is no evidence that physicians have lost patients or revenue as a result of their serving as mandated reporters of child abuse. Policies now in effect by the national veterinary associations in the U.S., U.K., Canada, and New Zealand require veterinarians to report suspected abuse and all four nations have produced excellent materials to help guide practitioners through this territory which is new and uncharted for many of them.
The bond that people have with their animals is especially intense during times of crisis. We see this over and over again when people will not leave a disaster scene unless they can take their animals with them. For many people, “crisis” is also a family breakup. Meanwhile, veterinary marketing studies demonstrate conclusively that care for companion animals are generally the responsibility of the woman in the household. Add in the emotional ties binding women and children to their pets, and you have a toxic point of vulnerability that is often exploited by abusers seeking to enforce their power and control.
You share your life with a dog called Barnaby. How did you meet?
I went to a local animal shelter for a job interview. He was just sitting there in a cage, a victim of the 2008-09 recession when so many “foreclosure pets” were surrendered to shelters. He was waiting for just the right someone and I knew immediately it was me. We went outside for a walk and he followed me home... as he has done every day since.
What do you do to spend time together?
Barnaby’s motto is “Let no lap go un-sat.” He’s usually curled up in his bed in my office, sleeping with one eye open and watching me, and then every so often he comes up in my lap and tells me it’s time to take a break. And then promptly at 5 pm every day he brings me a squeaky toy as if to say, “Enough’s enough, dad, it’s time to play.” I don’t know how he tells time so accurately. He must be a “watch dog.”
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about caring for the non-humans in your life?
I started out as a newspaper reporter which made me a professional dilettante who is always looking for interesting stories about people’s lives. Twenty-three years working in animal shelters taught me to appreciate the human condition by seeing people’s lives through the lens of their animals. Our relationships with pets are windows into our personalities and mirrors of interpersonal relationships. And I’ve also learned, as American newspaper columnist Dave Barry has written, that “You can say any stupid thing to a dog and he’ll look at you with those big brown eyes and think, ‘My God, that’s amazing! I never would have thought of that myself!’”
What could we do to make the world better for non-human animals?
We’ve been preaching for 150 years the need to develop empathy through humane education programs and getting people to treat the animals that share our homes and communities with more respect. That message, as noble as it is, has never really resonated with the educators, funders and government leaders who can make change happen: it’s too vague. They need something more tangible and measurable.
Lisa Wood and her colleagues at the University of Western Australia have come up with a better approach. Their research, both in Perth and in three cities in the U.S., prove pretty conclusively that “social capital” – the communitarian spirit and glue that hold our societies together – increases when people have pets. The Link demonstrates that when animals are abused, people are at risk, and that when people are abused animals are at risk. Once we all realize that animals are not trivial we will stop marginalizing them and the agencies that care about them and dollars and legislation will flow to programs that prevent violence against all vulnerable members of the family.
Any advice you’d like to share with veterinarians and future veterinarians?
The American veterinary oath now includes the prevention of animal suffering among the many mandates. The government in Scotland has identified veterinarians as one of the top three professions (along with beauticians and dentists) most likely to encounter abused women. The veterinary team is in a unique position as the only profession with a three-dimensional voice that transcends disciplines and that addresses animal health, human health and environmental health. The trusted relationship clients have with their veterinarians means that practitioners and their staffs will occasionally be confronted with problematic but critical responsibilities in what often develop into complex multi-agency investigations. Physicians dealt with these same concerns 50 years ago when child abuse was first seen as a medical issue, and has resolved these issues. The veterinary community is now similarly poised to serve as sentinels for animal welfare.