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Where I Come From


By Lionel Foster | Posted 7/14/2010

Late last month, a 1-year-old cat named Rainbow--so called likely because of the gray and tan splotches that stand out against her white coat--was pelted with stones shortly after giving birth to a litter of kittens. The assault took place in Cherry Hill. According to the Baltimore Area Rescue and Care Shelter, the young cat's attackers were children.

Rainbow is expected to recover, but the anger some people felt over the stoning was evident on local television news station WBAL-TV's web site, which posted a video and written summary of the story. "These children should be put down," wrote a commenter with the handle Zebula. "They have no respect for life and do not deserve to live. I'll throw the first stone." Someone else offered to throw the second. Db44 worried that, "The children abusing animals today will be . . . shooting people in just a few years." Yorknlake was the most succinct of the 17 commenters: "This city is full of animals[,] and I'm not talking about the four-legged variety."

Unfortunately, this was not the first--nor by no means the most severe--case of animal cruelty to be recorded within city limits in recent memory. A pair of 17-year-old brothers was accused of dousing a pit bull with gasoline and setting it on fire last May in South Baltimore. Dubbed "Phoenix" by her carers, the dog suffered burns over 95 percent of her body and had to be euthanized. That story spread nationally as a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of her abusers ballooned to $26,000, and her death spurred the creation of Baltimore's Anti-Animal Abuse Task Force, whose recommendations for preventing animal cruelty are due this month.

Meanwhile, the abuse continues. Since April, children have been accused of stoning dogs on Greenspring Avenue and Carroll Park Golf Course. The age and identity of the person who left a dead dog hanging from a fence on West Lanvale Street last month is unknown. Some of those following those stories online express the same type of outrage that Rainbow's story invoked.

The anonymous online comments of a few dozen people don't necessarily represent a public consensus. Indeed, after the Greenspring Avenue beating, some viewers voiced concern for the children implicated in the attack, asking how likely it is that they come from safe, supportive environments. Still, a number of people are so fed up that it is now possible to use the web site of a local news station to advocate killing a child and receive unsolicited support in the process. What, exactly, is going on?

People love their pets, sometimes more than other people. Evolutionary biologists have suspected for decades now that certain physical features in babies such as "a large forehead, large and low-lying eyes, [and] chubby cheeks" as described by British psychologist John Archer, elicit caretaker instincts in human adults even when seen in non-humans. Some of the animals we love most give us the opportunity to project onto them the best of what we've seen in people.

Two-hundred thirty-eight people were murdered in Baltimore in 2009, among them 15 juveniles, but few if any received the kind of local and national attention given to Phoenix's gruesome death. Compassion fatigue sets in as the numbers pile up, and each human face and each human story begins to sound the same. For example, WBAL-TV's report said nothing about the identity of the children who are thought to have attacked Rainbow or their families but, apparently, simply knowing where this happened was enough for one commenter to paint a vivid and lurid picture. "[W]hat are these kids thinking?" KsMommy asked. "What are their parents thinking? . . . They're probably too strung out or busy sucking on the crack pipe to even notice their kids." That certain crime-plagued sections of the city are unsafe for humans is taken for granted. When they become unsafe for animals, it's a tragedy.

Commenters had no trouble imagining that Rainbow's attackers might grow up to harm human beings. Indeed, research shows a compelling link between childhood animal abuse and violent behavior in adulthood, but there is also evidence that children from physically abusive households may resort to animal cruelty as a way to feel empowered. No one in that forum suggested that these children might have been acting out what they'd seen or, worse, experienced firsthand.

Our current conversations about animal welfare may have more to do with people than we realize--in this case, the type of people we fear. Animals and children, both small, sometimes unpredictable and, throughout these news accounts, silent, act as characters onto which we project our own biases. This does not have to be an either/or proposition that pits at-risk kids against animals. In fact, helping the former may go a long way to protecting the latter. But some people have taken sides and are eager to see the children lose.

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