I and many others are upset over a recent story out of Santa Rosa, California. On June 19, two fifteen-year-old girls poured accelerant over a feral kitten trapped in a cage, lit him on fire, and laughed while he writhed and howled in pain. Community outrage was immediate, and money poured in for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators of this horrendous deed. The kitten survived, is now undergoing treatment for its injuries, and it appears as though he may recover. Meanwhile, witnesses finally stepped forward and identified the girls, and they were arrested and taken to juvenile hall.
In the comments section of a local paper, people expressed their anger and hatred toward these girls, suggesting that they be punished with everything from prison to "an eye for an eye," or, in this case, a burning for a burning. Relatively few expressed any sympathy for the perpetrators of this sick act, much less urged that they receive psychological treatment rather than punishment.
I must admit that my initial response was also more vindictive than reflective. Here is what I wrote in the comments section:
Had I seen these girls laughing while that kitten burned and cried, I don't know what I might have done to them in a blind rage. It wouldn't have been right, but it would be understandable. I agree with those who say that these girls must have been mentally ill or deficient in some way to do what they did, and that such a condition is the likely result of a difficult life quite possibly filled with abuse. Nevertheless, as I grow older, I am less inclined to accept these explanations, as true as they might be, as excuses for letting the perpetrators, if they are adolescents or adults, off with a proverbial slap on the wrist. I agree with those who have suggested that these girls should be forced to spend time in burn wards watching patients undergo debridement and skin grafting. They should also be forced to watch similar treatment of the kitten they burned.
I also agree with those who suggest that we need to return to using public shaming for crimes. These girls should be forced to appear in public wearing signs describing what they did. Their parents should also be required to pay the vet bills for the kitten, or, if they are living here illegally, they should be jailed and then deported along with their daughters. Society needs to send an unequivocal message that extreme animal cruelty is utterly and completely unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Parents need to know that they bear significant responsibility for the crimes their children commit. And if would-be parents are living in human ratholes such as the Papago Court Apartments, they should think twice about having kids until they can provide them with better circumstances for their upbringing. With the right to have kids there should also be the responsibility to raise them properly along with serious consequences for failing to do this.
But a few days later I had calmed down enough to write the following in response to someone who argued that because he knew people who had been abused as children and did not proceed to abuse animals, child abuse does not cause animal abuse:
I agree with jgp that not everyone who's abused as a child ends up torturing animals as a result and that people need to be held responsible in some fashion for the terrible things they do no matter what their backgrounds happen to be. However, the fact that not everyone who's grown up in difficult circumstances does what these girls did does not prove that growing up in difficult circumstances did not cause or partially cause these girls to act the way they did, any more than the fact that not everyone who is stung by a bee goes into anaphylactic shock proves that bee stings never cause this deadly condition. Nevertheless, I believe that these girls need to face severe, but not wantonly cruel, consequences for their horrendous deed. They and the public at large need to know that we as a society regard such sadistic behavior as beyond the pale of human decency and beyond our tolerance.
As I review my comments above, I wonder whether and to what degree I may be contradicting myself. If I believe that what these girls did is sick, and I do believe this, and I believe that this sickness may result from a bad upbringing, which I think is distinctly possible, am I being consistent in calling for these girls to be publicly shamed, incarcerated, and perhaps even deported along with their parents for their criminal cruelty? If these girls could not help doing what they did under the circumstances in which they did it, am I urging that society be too punitive toward them? What IS the proper way to handle people who commit these kinds of acts?
I guess I think that people torture helpless animals because either their sick urge to do this overpowers their normal inhibitions from doing it, or they lack the normal inhibitions to keep from doing what mentally healthy people do not wish to do in the first place. Furthermore, they did not wake up one morning with healthy desires and normal inhibitions and suddenly freely choose to desire sick things so much that they acted them out. They did what they did because their mind, brain, society, and culture aligned themselves in such a manner at that particular time that they produced the acts in question.
But if this is true, what should we as individuals and as a society do about it? What should we do with these girls? Does it make any sense at all to punish to any degree a sick act that these girls, under the circumstances, could not help but commit? Or is this not unfair?
I do not know what you, dear reader, think, although I hope you will tell me. But I am inclined to think that there is such a thing as appropriate punishment for acts such as these and that it would closely approximate the multi-pronged approach I outlined earlier: incarceration, restitution, empathy training, and public shaming. I am inclined to believe that these punitive measures are not excessive and may very well work together to help create a constellation of conditions which deter these girls and others from committing similar crimes in the future, as well as provide society with the vital sense that justice has been done.