Speaker Spotlight: Dr. Frank Ascione, PhD

Image of Dr. Frank AscioneDr. Frank Ascione, PhD, is an internationally-renowned researcher and author on the development of antisocial and prosocial behaviour in children with more than 40 years of research experience on the intersections between animal abuse and interpersonal violence. He has co-edited two books, Cruelty to Animals and Interpersonal Violence: Readings in Research and Application and Child Abuse, Domestic Violence and Animal Abuse: Linking the Circles of Compassion for Prevention and Intervention. He also authored Safe Havens for Pets: Guidelines for Programs Sheltering Pets for Women Who Are Battered. Dr. Ascione also edited The International Handbook of Animal Abuse and Cruelty: Theory, Research and Application (Purdue University Press, 2010).

CFHS: How did you get into this work bridging animal wellness and human wellness?

FA: Actually, I got into it in a very circuitous way. I’m a child psychologist by training – that’s what I got my doctorate in. And I was always interested in prosocial development – the ways that children develop kindness and caring. At the time that I was in graduate school, there was a great deal of interest in the study of empathy and how it develops in children. We did some research on that in very basic ways in the first years of my career, and then we were approached by the Humane Society of the United States in the mid-1980s to evaluate some curriculum materials that they had developed for implementing humane education programs in elementary schools. We were intrigued by that because it’s not often that a non-profit organization wants to conduct scientific research on the effectiveness of their programs. So a number of us gathered together and formed a research team and studied the effects of this curriculum on children’s empathy and their attitudes toward animals.

After focusing on that for a number of years, a colleague of mine in the animal welfare arena came up to me at a conference and said, ‘Frank, you’ve been studying children’s kindness to animals for a few years. What do you know about children’s cruelty to animals?” The question took me aback because I had really never thought about that issue. That led me onto this route of focusing my research efforts on trying to understand the origins of animal cruelty perpetrated by both young and older human beings.

CFHS: After all this research, what have you found about what influences kindness versus cruelty? I know this is probably a huge amount of data to filter down, but is there anything that you can say with total confidence that, yes, this is an element that is always present when children are either kind or cruel to animals?

FA: It is a hard question to answer, but when we look at the development of empathy, we now know that this is a characteristic that develops very early in the lives of human beings and probably some other primates, as well. The origins of empathy begin in human beings in the last half of the second year of life.

CFHS: So between 18 and 24 months.

FA: Yes. We begin to see signs that older infants are empathizing with the suffering of someone else or with their joy or pleasure. I presume – and I think there’s fairly good data on this now – that our capacity for empathizing is one of those wonderful, in-born characteristics of human beings. Unfortunately, we also have a capacity for being uncaring and cruel. I think there are some biological origins for that, as well. But we know that there are strong environmental factors that influence these characteristics. One of them that we’re finding in our research most recently is something called callous and unemotional traits. It appears that, even though many young people may engage in antisocial behaviour, it’s when that behaviour is coupled with the inability to empathize with someone else’s suffering that it becomes a much more serious issue than just the antisocial behaviour itself. And that is sometimes what we see in animal abuse cases.

CFHS: Was this research your door into working on the violence link?

FA: Yes it was. When I first began studying the issue of children who are cruel to animals, I dove into the literature – and it was very dispersed. It was in psychology, psychiatry, sociology, social work, medicine and public health. When I began looking at the characteristics that seem to be present, one thing that kept coming up over and over again was extremely dysfunctional family environments where there was either a history of severe physical abuse of children or sexual abuse of children. We also discovered that when children were in families where there was intimate partner violence or domestic violence, there was a heightened likelihood of the child engaging in animal abuse. So I thought it would be best to focus my research on environments where the level of human-to-human violence was already high and see if violence toward animals would be higher, as well. That led me to look at cases where our participants were survivors of domestic violence residing in shelters, which began a long series of studies specifically looking at animal abuse perpetrated by batterers and how prevalent that is.

CFHS: What are some of the key things that you’ve learned over the years in doing this work?

FA: We find that women who go to a shelter or transition house, if there were pets present in the home, we find that around 50 to 60 percent of the women report that their partner has either hurt or killed one or more of their pets. Now that’s an unbelievably high percentage. When you ask the same question of women who are not survivors of any form of adult interpersonal violence, you usually get zero to five per cent saying yes to a question about hurting or killing an animal. 

CFHS: Wow.

FA: It’s a much more common experience in these families. So, given the high prevalence of that behaviour, one has to immediately ask not only what is the effect on that animal and the woman who lives with that companion animal but also the effect on any children who might be in that home. The whole issue of exposure to animal abuse is one that’s being looked at more carefully now. In part, that’s a result of the great pioneering work of two Canadians – Dr. Peter Jaffe and David Wolfe. They really are the pioneers on the topics of children’s exposure to violence and the deleterious effects of that.

CFHS: Can you give us a sense of what you’ll be talking about during your plenary at the Canadian Violence Link Conference in December?

FA: I’ll be talking about the origins of this research and the research journey that brought me to this topic, but then I’m going to be focusing on more recent research that has looked at the issue of violence toward animals in the context of intimate partner violence. Given the research that has emerged, I’m also going to talk about programmatic changes that have occurred in the humane field – and that is greater collaboration between humane societies or SPCAs and domestic violence programs to provide shelter for the pets of women who are going into a domestic violence program.

CFHS: Where they can’t cohabitate with their pets.

FA: Exactly. I’m also going to be talking about some legislative changes that have occurred in the United States that are directly related to the research. It’s a good example of how important numbers can be even though we all detest them. Anecdotes are powerful but, sometimes, for change to occur, we need numbers to back up the anecdotes.

I want to say that I’m honoured to be part of the first national conference on the violence link in Canada. Canada has been only second to the United States in the generation of research and programs on this topic, and I’m looking forward to sharing what I have to say and also learning about programs happening in Canada.

To read more about Dr. Ascione’s plenary on the roots of kindness and cruelty at the CFHS Canadian Violence Link Conference in Ottawa on December 5, go here. To read the other speaker spotlight interviews, go here. And to see the full conference program, go here.