Home  |   Subscribe  |   Resources  |   Reprints  |   Writers' Guidelines

Web Exclusive

Understanding Sensitivity to Institutionalized Animal Abuse
By April Lang, MSW, LCSW, SEP

In our field, we often find ourselves working with people who are marginalized by society in some way due to their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnic group, or socio-economic status. These issues are familiar to us; we read about them, hear them discussed at conferences, and discuss them. An issue not so familiar to us is institutionalized animal abuse. Most of us know little, if anything, about this subject or how deeply it impacts some of our clients. Many patients are reluctant to raise this subject in the therapy room for fear that their concerns will be treated dismissively. While this isn't the most prevalent of issues discussed in our offices now, that may change over time. As civilization continues to learn more about the emotional life and intelligence of nonhuman animals, it's inevitable more of our clients will be affected by the world's treatment of these sentient beings. We may even find some people initiating therapy precisely because of this issue. It would be beneficial for mental health professionals to have a working knowledge of this subject as well as some idea of what to expect when working with this population.

Institutionalized Animal Abuse
When clients use the term "institutionalized animal abuse," they're referring to a systemic abuse and neglect of animals so entrenched in the fabric of most societies that it barely registers in most people's consciousness. For example, our clients may refer to the agricultural system (i.e., factory farming); our use of animal fur, skin, and parts in clothing, medicine, and cosmetics; or the decimation of wildlife by hunters. Captive animals in zoos, circuses, and waterparks might be discussed. If you're not familiar with this issue, the short British documentary, Their Future in Your Hands, is an excellent overview.

Who Are These Clients?
As with any therapy practice, we can expect to see a diverse group of people. Some will be doing hands-on work with animals and may include rescuers, shelter personnel, wildlife rehabilitators, undercover investigators, and veterinarians. Others may be engaged in advocacy work, such as animal rights attorneys or staff members at animal organizations. We may work with survivors of domestic violence who often report that their perpetrators harm or threaten to kill the family animal(s) as a means of coercion. But mental health professionals could also find themselves working with an individual who can be categorized as someone with a deep love and connection to animals.

What Are the Issues?
What's most important to realize about these clients is that they are exceptionally attuned to the suffering of all animals. Photos and videos of animal abuse and neglect are obviously triggering, as might be the sight of someone entering a restaurant wearing a fur coat or the smell of bacon when passing a deli. Many of these clients will tell us they feel deep sadness or even anger for the way our culture perceives and treats animals—considering them to be of little value, indifferent to their suffering. People often speak of having their beliefs disparaged by their families, peers, and coworkers, often resulting in strained or fractured relationships. Frustration is also common because these individuals desperately want to see conditions improving for animals, but feel the pace of societal change is too slow. Some may feel they're personally not doing enough to make a dent in the status quo, and may compare themselves unfavorably to those they believe are doing more for the cause. And don't be surprised to find instances of PTSD in some of these clients, especially those who are witnessing or doing hands-on work with habitually abused animals. Overall, we're dealing here with a sector of the population who are experiencing their own particular type of cultural marginalization.

How Can We Help?
While some clients might initiate therapy specifically to discuss the issue of institutionalized animal abuse and how it affects them, others may wait to broach the subject. Many of these people won't open up till they're certain we are willing and able to appreciate their stance. This is no different than if we were working with any other marginalized population. Unless they've come to us through a referral, the only way for them to be certain of our receptivity is by asking a question or making a comment about this issue and considering our response. And that response, which includes body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice, will be pivotal in confirming for them whether they're in a safe space.

Once the subject has been introduced, clients will undoubtedly begin to expound on the various forms of animal cruelty that they have experienced, witnessed, heard of, or read about. Thus, as with any other client sharing difficult material, we must be mindful of not shutting them down; many of the people in their lives already do just that. And we must be especially careful not to inadvertently minimize their concerns by saying or implying something such as, "that's just the way the world is,"—a commonly heard rationalization. These clients are not in our offices because they want us to help them feel better about this issue; they are coming to us for guidance in how to cope more effectively with the eruptions of emotions and disruptions in relationships that are often a part of their lives.

These men and women will need our support as well as our expertise in devising specific strategies for dealing with the depression, anger, and hopelessness that often accompany this issue. We needn't reinvent the wheel here; we already have an array of tools from which to draw. For our clients who are activists or engage in hands-on work with animals, our skills will be needed to help them develop more realistic expectations about what they can accomplish, so as not to become defeated. And because their views are frequently belittled and met with derision, they often find their interpersonal relationships to be very stressful. Helping them navigate these relationships will be a critical part of our work.

Final Thoughts
Compassion for the vast array of nonhuman animals is not a mental disorder requiring treatment. Increasing our empathy and regard for both humans and nonhumans is something that would benefit all of us, both on the micro and macro levels. By making an effort to learn about this issue and providing our clients with a safe space where they can openly express their feelings about the world's treatment of its animals, we'll be helping these people feel less alienated. As Albert Schweitzer, PhD, said, "We must realize that all life is valuable and that we are united to all life. From this knowledge comes our spiritual relationship with the universe."

— April Lang, MSW, LCSW, SEP, is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City. She is also an animal advocate, humane educator, and writer.