Just a Dog: Understanding Animal Cruelty and Ourselves

Just a Dog: Understanding Animal Cruelty and Ourselves

Just a Dog: Understanding Animal Cruelty and Ourselves

Just a Dog: Understanding Animal Cruelty and Ourselves


InJust a Dog, Arnold Arluke argues that animal cruelty must be understood in terms of social relationships rather than an individual's psychological problem or personality disorder. Arluke situates cruelty in actual situations where groups of people decide, on their own terms, what constitutes the wrongful harm of animals and how best to communicate their understanding to others. He captures how law enforcement agents, shelter workers, humane marketers, the general public, and animal abusers (or neglecters), make sense of animal cruelty. In each case, cruelty's meaning reflects the practical, personal, and ideological concerns of these groups and the wider social and cultural confusion over the nature and significance of animals and their proper treatment. He shows that these divergent definitions are not mere reflections of the social world but are actively created and used by group members to achieve sought-after identities.


The judge summarily dismissed the egregious case of animal cruelty against
Willa, despite strong evidence that the dog was hideously beaten with base
ball bats. People standing near the bench heard the judge glibly mumbling,
“It’s just a dog …” as he moved on to a “more important case,” a liquor store
“B & E.” The humane law enforcement agents who prosecuted Willa’s case felt
a surge of anger and frustration, seeing their effort go nowhere. The abusers
disappeared quickly from the courtroom, still puzzled about why such a “big
stink” was made over a dog. At the local humane society, the staff soon got
the disappointing news that Willa’s abusers walked away scot-free but found
much to celebrate that made them feel good about their work—the dog’s
abusers at least had their day in court, a dedicated and highly skilled veteri
nary staff saved Willa from death, and an employee adopted her.

—Author’s field notes, June 1996

I OBSERVED THE ANIMAL CRUELTY case against Willa in court and overheard disappointed humane agents, who had hoped for a different result, retell the events days later. Two youths brutally beat the dog after accepting the owner’s offer of a few dollars to kill her because she urinated in his house. As the beating went on, an off-duty police officer drove by and intervened. Although it seemed as strong as any such case could be, it was dismissed. Like many other cruelty incidents presented before judges, the victim’s advocates were let down and the defendants were relieved (Arluke and Luke 1997).

As a sociologist I was more concerned about the process that led up to the dismissal than the outcome itself. To study this process, I asked what the case meant to those present, as it unfolded in the courtroom, and I found that it had many different and conflicting meanings to the humane agents, the defendants, the humane society staff, and the reporters.

For the humane agents, the case represented their best investigative work and had the potential to validate their mission, if a guilty verdict were won. They felt their case was solid—the victim was a dog with . . .

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