Last night, a young man went on a rampage at a movie theater in the suburbs of Denver, killing or injuring dozens of people. I don’t know any more than anyone else right now about the man who allegedly did this. I don’t know his background or how he’s spent his life.
But you can generally assume that anyone who does something like this is a person with very low self-esteem who feels they can gain power and recognition by committing violence against people who can’t defend themselves.
This particular horror happened not far from the Columbine High School where two young men went storming through the school randomly killing students and teachers 13 years ago. They both fitted the profile of a person who feels powerless and bears a grudge. If you want to see a deranged adult killer in the making, watch out for a young animal abuser.
And you can generally assume one other thing, too: If you want to see a deranged adult killer in the making, watch out for a young animal abuser.
In each of five school massacres that took place in the year and a half leading up to the Columbine case, the kids who opened fire on their fellow students, teachers, and family all had a history of killing or hurting animals first.
The most documented of these was the case of 16-year-old Luke Woodham, who had bragged to his friends about what he called his “first kill,” the family dog. Nobody in Pearle, Mississippi, where he lived, took much notice at the time. It was “only an animal,” after all. But two months later, Woodham stabbed his mother to death and proceeded to the local high school where he went on a shooting spree, leaving two more people dead.
In other school massacres, like in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Springfield, Oregon, the kids who opened fire on their fellow students, teachers, and family were also reported to have had a history of killing or hurting animals.
Police, educators, and animal welfare authorities are always on the alert for this connection. Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, “Boston Strangler” Albert DeSalvo, and “Son of Sam” David Berkowitz, all began by torturing and killing animals – mostly dogs and cats. The mentally deranged man who blasted his way into Congress and killed security guards later admitted that he’d “practiced on cats.”
The FBI began to pay close attention to animal cruelty in the 1970s when a study showed that about one in three multiple murderers in one prison had also killed and tortured animals when they were younger. FBI agents reckoned that the number of animal abusers was a good deal higher and that convicted murderers were reluctant to admit to violence against animals. One in three multiple murderers in one prison had also killed and tortured animals when they were younger.
Dylan Klebold was one of the two young men men who carried out the murders at Columbine. He’d then killed himself, too, the pastor who officiated at his funeral said that Klebold’s parents were “horrified” and that they had no idea where their son’s fascination with guns came from. They knew he had firearms at home but they said the biggest gun they knew about was “just to shoot the woodpeckers.”
“Just” to shoot the woodpeckers. Well, obviously there’s a difference between gunning down a small bird and massacring dozens of people. (Unless, of course, you’re unfortunate enough to be the bird.) But the common factors include the desire to take out your own frustration on something more helpless than yourself, and the sense of power you feel after having felt so inadequate deep down inside.
So I’m guessing that when more is known about the suspect in this latest horror at a movie theater, we’ll learn that he’d once abused animals. If and when we do hear this, it will probably be in passing. Most of the pundits and commentators will be focusing on other parts of his background. But the fact is, if we learn when we’re young that it’s okay to snuff out an innocent life, even if it’s just a woodpecker, we’ll test the envelope a little wider next time. Perhaps a cat or a dog. And, perhaps eventually, another human.
Some years ago, two teenagers shot and killed one of my own dogs when I was out hiking one Sunday afternoon. In the days that followed, people called in anonymously to give me, and the sheriff’s office, a fair idea as to who the boys were, although there was never enough firm evidence for an arrest. But the picture that emerged was, once again, of teenage boys who didn’t fit in well at school or around town, who were not well liked, and who made themselves feel better by toting guns and going out to shoot little creatures more helpless than themselves.
Of course, not every kid who takes pot shots at animals turns into an infamous murderer. But for those who do, the warning signs are always there.