Cruelty to Animals

Three other parents and all our respective children witnessed two boys abusing a cat, two days in a row. They were trying to suspend the cat from a tree, from playground equipment, and were going to push it down the slide, etc. It was very upsetting. The animal appeared terrified, but was compliant as though accustomed to abuse. I’ve never seen a cat in such a fearful, self-protected posture, its tail and hind end so tight as it tried to “walk” with them, on a harness. I wanted to take the cat but figured that was not permitted.I am going to find out who the parents are and hope they are reasonable people, but can you tell me, besides telling the boys to stop, what can bystanders do in such a situation? Do you call the police? an animal rights group? As for immediate action, can you take the animal out of harm’s way? Adults are so afraid to approach children now – maybe it’s illegal, maybe the parents will overreact.

There have been studies on “bystander intervention” which highlight the fact that people are often afraid to intervene in situations in which human beings are being harmed. Everyone hopes that someone else will take action, but they don’t. We are afraid of being personally harmed, of being sued, and of peer disapproval. We escort our own children safely home from school because we don’t trust others in the community to keep them safe. We keep our own children away from those children who have problems or behave in unacceptable ways, further isolating those children. We need to change this situation and become a community again.

You don’t say how old the boys were. Did they seem to be trying to abuse the cat, or just to play with it? Young children often want to treat animals like living dolls, without realizing how the animals feel. We got a cat when my son was five, and he was constantly wanting to grab the cat and play with it, to the point that the cat began to run and hide at the sight of him. He just didn’t understand that cats don’t like to be squished. In situations like this we adults need to teach the children what it might be like to be the animal. For example, I would suddenly grab my son and hold him imprisoned in my arms so he couldn’t move. When he’d complain, I’d ask “How do you think Velvet (the cat) feels when you do this to him?”

If the boys were playing with the cat without recognizing its feelings, then it would be fine to speak to their parents and make them aware of the situation, perhaps giving them some suggestions about how they could educate their children to be kinder to animals.

If the boys were actually trying to abuse the cat, the situation is different. Children who abuse animals intentionally are often abused children themselves, and are re-enacting their own frightening experiences while being the ones in control. These children need help. Unfortunately, speaking to their parents may just get them punished without helping them learn to behave differently or rescuing them from their own abusive situations. You’re an adult so you need to be brave enough not to worry about what the boys’ parents may think of you. But you do need to be concerned about what will happen to the boys if they get in trouble at home. If the parents are reasonable, the consequences will be reasonable. If not, you may have saved the cat this time but there may be severe punishment of the boys or just neglect and not caring and the cat may get hurt and scared more later.

In either case, the first thing to do is stop the abuse of the cat by intervening. Pick up the cat and confront the boys, saying that what they are doing is hurting and frightening the cat, and that’s not okay. Watch their reactions, and decide whether they’re just unaware (as younger children often are) or whether they’re deliberately cruel. If they’re unaware, ask where they live and take them and the cat home and speak to their parents. If they’re being cruel, call the police, who will hopefully give the boys a warning and will also have the authority to persuade the parents that these boys are troubled and need further help.

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