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First Strike returns: pioneering Scottish SPCA campaign to help pets and people suffering abuse

Campaign was first introduced in 1998 to highlight the link between domestic violence and animal abuse

02 July 2020, at 3:00pm

The Scottish SPCA has revived its pioneering First Strike campaign to help humans and animals affected by domestic abuse.

Scotland’s animal welfare charity first introduced the campaign in 1998 to highlight the link between domestic violence and animal abuse. At the time, this was not a common association and one of the first steps was to convince the veterinary profession of the relationship between the two acts.

First Strike was then adopted by The Links Group which consists of medical professionals, veterinary surgeons, police, social workers and animal welfare organisations. The link is now widely recognised.

Gilly Mendes Ferreira, head of education, policy and research said, “The re-launch of our First Strike campaign reaffirms the Scottish SPCA’s commitment to helping people and animals who are victims of domestic violence.

“The nature of our work means we often enter situations where domestic violence is a problem, and in our experience animals can often be the forgotten victims. Pets can be exploited as a form of control by an abuser and be beaten or mistreated directly.

“There is real concern the lockdown imposed due to the Coronavirus pandemic has put those who were already being abused at even greater risk, confining them to a home with their abuser. We are determined to help people and their pets, should they find themselves in this situation.”

The Scottish SPCA is a global leader in highlighting the link between cruelty towards animals at a young age which can potentially lead to violence towards humans and other serious crimes as an adult.

The Society’s ground-breaking Animal Guardians programme works with young people across Scotland who have hurt animals or are displaying behaviours towards animals which are a cause of concern. Since launching, the Scottish SPCA has received referrals for over 100 children to the scheme. In partnership with the University of Edinburgh a soon-to-be published in-depth study focused on 10 children aged between five and 12 who participated in Animal Guardians.

Two of the participants had sadly killed an animal whilst four had harmed an animal and another four were assessed as at-risk of harming an animal.

PhD Student Laura Wauthier stated: “All ten children were interviewed and three key themes emerged: the emotional bonds many children formed with animals, the normalisation of violence in their lives, and signs of unresolved trauma or emotional issues among children.

Largely, the children participating understood animals had their own feelings and emotions and perceived violence towards animals to be just as bad, if not worse, than violence towards humans. Many of the children struggled to acknowledge their own acts of cruelty and this conflicted with their positive perception of animals and attachment to their pets. Many said their acts of cruelty were triggered by an animal’s bad behaviour or by lashing out due to being angry themselves.”

Professor Jo Williams, director of the Centre for Applied Developmental Psychology, University of Edinburgh, added: “There was a trend of violence being normalised in the lives of the children who took part. Some recounted witnessing violence towards animals carried out by other members of their household, suggesting their own acts of cruelty may be learned behaviours. Many children taking part had a negative view of themselves and struggled to control their own behaviour”. Animal cruelty among young people is complex and can be a prelude to violence towards people later in life. This unique research is the first UK study to speak directly to children involved in harming animals in order to understand their circumstances and perspectives. We need to take a compassionate approach to children who harm animals, as well to the animals who are harmed.”

The First Strike campaign aims to raise awareness of the link and keep people and their pets safe.

Gilly said, “It is well known that many factors can negatively impact a child’s behaviour which includes growing up in an abusive household, in an environment where violence is commonplace, and suffering from severe trauma.” Sadly, this can lead to animals becoming hurt both intentionally and unintentionally and should be seen as an early warning sign that that child and that household needs help and we are calling on all agencies that work in our communities to recognise this link.

“If anyone is in an abusive relationship and concerned about the wellbeing of themselves and their pet then we would urge them to contact our confidential animal helpline. Please don’t feel there is nowhere to turn. The Scottish SPCA will provide shelter to an animal involved in domestic abuse and help in any way we can.”

The Scottish SPCA animal helpline can be reached on 03000 999 999 and is open from 7am until 9pm every day. The Animal Guardians research paper is due to be published in full in a journal in early July.