Animal Cruelty & Dehumanization in Human Rights Violations
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November/December 2009:
Animal Cruelty & Dehumanization in Human Rights Violations by Wolf Clifton
Almost annually people who care about animals are shocked by
accounts of how the U.S. military prepares combat medics to work in
Iraq and Afghanistan.
Petty Officer Third Class Dustin E. Kirby, for example,
described his training to C.J. Chivers of The New York Times in
November 2006, almost a year after Kirby himself was severely
wounded on Christmas Day 2005.
“The idea is to work with live tissue,” Kirby explained.
“You get a pig and you keep it alive. Every time I did something to
help him, they would wound him again. So you see what shock does,
and what happens when more wounds are received by a wounded creature.
My pig? They shot him twice in the face with a 9-millimeter pistol,
and then six times with an AK-47, and then twice with a 12-gauge
shotgun. Then he was set on fire. I kept him alive for 15 hours.”
In July 2008 a similar exercise conducted at Schofield
Barracks, Hawaii, by the 25th U.S. Army Infantry Division attracted
protest from PETA.
“Shooting and maiming pigs is as outdated as Civil War
rifles,” alleged PETA spokesperson Kathy Guillermo.
Responded Major Derrick Cheng, “Alternative methods just
can’t replicate what the troops are going to face. What we’re doing
is unique to what the soldiers are going to actually experience.”
Nine members of Congress opposed yet another such exercise,
undertaken in August 2009 at Valley Center, California, by the U.S.
“This is kind of the shock-and-awe treatment,” responded
Corpsman Mark Litz to Tony Perry of the Los Angeles Times. “A lot of
these guys have never really seen blood and could freeze up the first
time they do,” Litz explained. “What good is a Marine or corpsman
who’s frozen up in combat?”
What the pig training is really all about has very little to
do with practicing whatever medical techniques the participants use.
Before the trainees ever handle a pig, they will have practiced the
procedures many times with realistic manequins and computer programs.
The central purpose of the pig training is to prepare combat medics
to cope emotionally with the realities of warfare: to learn to
distance themselves from suffering, bloodshed, and death, even
when it happens to their buddies.
Schooling medical personnel would seem to have a higher and
more benign purpose than the bayonet drills that are still a routine
part of military training worldwide. Yet the underlying goal is
U.S. armed forces last mounted a battalion-sized bayonet
charge on February 2, 1951. U.S. military officers recognized as
early as the Civil War that modern firearms had made the bayonet
charge an obsolete tactic. U.S. Army and Marine Corps recruits
nonetheless still practice bayonet charges in basic training and boot
camp, because the exercise of repeatedly ramming a bayonet into a
mannequin, screaming “Spirit of the bayonet–kill!”, is believed to
be of enduring value in enabling troops to take human lives, despite
using much more sophisticated and distant methods. A soldier may sit
safely at a desk in California while guiding a Predator drone to
strike a suspected Taliban hideout in Pakistan, but killing even an
avowed enemy nonetheless tends to trouble most people–until they
have learned to suppress inhibition while following orders.
Killing animals in preparation for combat is no longer part
of the training of most U.S. soldiers, but exceptions have surfaced.
Pilots, for example, whose rockets and bombs tend to kill the most
people in modern warfare, may be taught to dispatch tame rabbits and
poultry with their bare hands, ostensibly as part of “survival
training” in case they are shot down over enemy territory. Reality
is that U.S. military pilots have not had occasion to use such
“survival training” in living off the land until rescue since World
War II. But the advent of rapid transmission of photographs of dead
and wounded civilians hit by misdirected airstrikes may have
exponentially increased the awareness of pilots of what their weapons
Killing animals is occasionally exposed as a part of military
training abroad. Some Peruvian recruits were taught to bayonet dogs
as recently as 2000. This training was apparently introduced years
earlier to prepare troops for counter-insurgency work during a grisly
civil war, in which the enemy was almost indistinguishable from
Within Western ideology, as distinct from the
Hindu/Buddhist tradition, animals have typically been regarded as
qualitatively different from humans. Standards for the treatment of
humans exist in all cultures, but moral consideration of animals is
usually a non-issue. Even where there are rules governing how
animals may be killed, as in slaughter and sacrifice, few
people–especially in the West–have ever questioned whether animals
may be killed.
Thus animals may be used to desensitize soldiers to killing.
More than that, excluding animals from ethical consideration may be a
first step toward a society rationalizing persecution of any people
it might relegate to “sub-human” status.
ANIMAL PEOPLE readers will be keenly aware of the
ever-expanding body of research demonstrating the association between
criminal animal abuse and violent crimes against humans. Among the
landmarks, a 1983 study by E. DeViney, J. Dickhert, and Randy
Lockwood found that in 88% of families where children are physically
abused, animal abuse is also present. A 1999 study by Arnold Arluke,
Jack Levin, Carter Luke, and Frank Ascione found that animal
abusers were 5.3 times more likely to have a violent criminal record
The association of violence against animals with violence
against humans is scarcely limited to illegal forms of violence.
ANIMAL PEOPLE in 1994-1995 discovered a positive correlation between
the numbers of licensed hunters and rates of family violence at the
county level in New York, Ohio, and Michigan.
None of these studies prove that animal abuse causes
human-to-human violence. Yet they do show the two to be inextricably
related and fundamentally similar in nature.
Cruelty to animals and human rights violations have mostly
been viewed as separate subjects. However, they may be seen as part
of a continuity if one considers the process of dehumanization, by
which a victim or enemy comes to be exempted from ethical
Human rights violations may also be understood as the
collective practice of acts that are considered criminal when
inflicted on people other than the dehumanized class of victims.
Frequently human rights violations take the form of
societally condoned serial killing, by secret police “death squads,”
mobs, or private militias. To understand how this occurs, one
might examine dehumanization as practiced by criminally prosecuted
From the beginning of systematic study of serial killers,
criminologists have recognized that the overwhelming majority kill
and torture animals as well as people–sometimes as a prelude to
killing humans, sometimes between killing human victims. ANIMAL
PEOPLE pointed out in 2006 that there is a visible association
between the gender of human victims and the species of animal victims
targeted by serial killers. Specifically, while serial killers who
target women also tend to persecute cats, those who target males
(such as John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer) display a clear
preference for persecuting dogs. This suggests that in the minds of
the perpetrators there is an equation of the human victims with the
animal victims, and that this equation contributes to the ability
and motivation of the serial killer to kill.
Dehumanization occurs quite openly and ubiquitously in
comparisons of human enemies to animals. To call someone a dog is an
insult in many languages, and in societies with traditional taboos
against dogs the term is considered especially hateful. Thus Iraqi
journalist Muntader al-Zaidi on February 14, 2008 threw his shoes at
then-U.S. President George W. Bush while screaming in Arabic, “This
is your kick in the butt, you son of a bitch!” And thus Chinese
propagandists under the notoriously dog-hating dictator Mao tse Tung
made frequent reference to American allies as “capitalist running
Terms such as “pig” and “snake” are used similarly.
Theodore Roosevelt offered a more visceral example of
dehumanizing an enemy when he reportedly boasted that he had “killed
a Spaniard with my bare hands like a jackrabbit” during the
As dehumanization progresses from insult to homicide to
genocide, the victims are not only compared to animals, or treated
in the same manner as animals, but are considered animals. The very
word “human” can come to have a highly selective and subjective
context. Slavery in the U.S., for example, was often rationalized
by maintaining that Africans constituted a separate species from
Europeans. Many quasi-scientific efforts were made to try to prove
this. The 19th century physician Samuel Morton is remembered for
ranking human races in terms of moral and intellectual endowment on
the basis of skull shape, with Caucasians predictably at the top of
the list. Other scientists of the time, such as Josiah Nott and
Louis Agassiz, proposed that blacks were not only an inferior race,
but had in fact evolved from different ancestors than Europeans.
Dehumanization progressed to perhaps the best-documented
extreme under the Third Reich. The Nazis literally categorized Jews,
gypsies, dark-skinned Africans, and other non-Aryans as
“untermenschen,” meaning sub-human, and took dehumanization to the
extent of experimentally attempting to hybridize some “untermenschen”
with great apes. Jews in particular were commonly described as
“vermin,” “parasites,” and “microbes.” Regarded not only as animals
but as parasites, Jews were killed by the millions with the
insecticide Zyclon B.
The Nazi concentration camps, gas chambers, assembly lines
for dismembering the dead in order to recycle their hair, fat, and
gold teeth, and crematories that reduced the remnants to bone ash
fertilizer were directly modeled on mechanized slaughterhouses,
introduced to Europe just as the Nazis came to power.
The World War II Japanese military performed comparable
atrocities, with similar pretexts. Chinese captives were used in
experiments including vivisection, deliberate infection with
disease, and exposure to all manner of extreme conditions. The
extent of dehumanization practiced by Japanese researchers in China
and Korea was so extreme that comparing the victims to animals gave
way to calling the subjects “maruta,” literally meaning “logs of
Americans were also dehumanized in Japanese wartime
propaganda. “Let us kill these animals who have lost the human
spirit,” suggested one widely distributed cartoon.
Americans in turn dehumanized the Japanese. Merely “Japs”
early in the war, the Japanese became “zips” later. This was short
for “zipperheads,” but the word “zip” is also a slang synonym for
In post-war pretense Americans who spoke of killing “zips”
were said to have been referring to the top Japanese warplane, the
Mitsubishi Zero–but the context of “zips” tended to be “persons who
may be killed with moral impunity,” including with atomic bombs that
killed hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians.
Dehumanization requires sharply differentiating between
“humans” and “animals,” in order to remove the victims from moral
consideration. This was much more easily done when much less was
known–or recognized–about human and animal nature. Charles Darwin,
however, was troubled by moral constructs that place humanity at
the apex of creation with more than just the theory of evolution. As
well as demonstrating that humans are kin, though distant, with the
“lowest” of life forms, Darwin concluded that “the difference in
mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly
is one of degree and not kind.”
Science has increasingly revealed this to be true. Traits
once believed unique to humans, such as tool use, self-awareness,
expressions of empathy and mourning, and even the invention and use
of language are not only ubiquitous among humans, even the
dehumanized, but have also all now been identified in multiple other
animal species. Conversely, human infants, sociopaths, and those
with mental disabilities may lack some or all of these traits. Thus
definitions of “humanity” based on behavior are defining tendencies,
Yet even a firm and inflexible definition of “humanity,” if
one could be found, would undercut only conscious dehumanization.
The propensity of animal abusers to also commit human rights
violations would remain unchanged: defining terms does not destroy
the basic nature of violence, or the inclination of violent people
to inflict mayhem on all vulnerable forms of life.
Eliminating the contributions of dehumanization to crimes
against humanity therefore requires that moral consideration not be
restricted solely to humans. Extending compassion to animals can
have only beneficial effects for society.
Mohandas Gandhi is often quoted as stating that, “The moral
progress of a nation may be judged by the way it treats its animals.”
Though Gandhian scholars have been unable to find any such explicit
statement in his writings, this was among his evident insights. If
animals may not be mistreated, cruelty to humans is also
categorically condemned, and dehumanization may no longer be used as
a pretext or rationalization for cruelty.
[Wolf Clifton is studying comparative religion and film
animation at Vanderbilt University.]