Editorial: Warning signs in cyberspace

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 22, 2008

If psychologists are correct that cruelty to animals is often a precursor to violence against people, then Jerry Lane Harwood’s behavior as described on his Web page ó and now, in a Rowan County arrest report ó doesn’t simply merit a red warning flag. It should set off sirens and clanging alarms as well.
Harwood is the 18-year-old Rockwell man who has been charged with setting the 2006 fire that destroyed the Stanback Petting Barn at Dan Nicholas Park, killed more than 40 animals and left many teary-eyed people, adults as well as children, wondering how anyone could have willfully committed such as act. “What they did was just like sticking a knife in everybody in Rowan County,” Jim Foltz, parks and recreation director, said at the time. The sentiment was shared by many who viewed the arson as a crime that victimized children as well as animals.
At this point, Harwood hasn’t been convicted of anything, and it will be up to the justice system to determine his guilt, whether others were involved and what punishment should be handed down. But along with a tip to police, some of the circumstantial evidence against Harwood may come from a Web of his own weaving. On his MySpace Web page, Harwood indulges in some of the same brooding images of death, violence and goth nihilism that have become all too familiar in the horrors of Columbine, Virginia Tech and a host of other deadly outbursts. Amid images of skulls and skeletons, Harwood refers to himself as the “Angel of Death” and describes an incident in which he supposedly used a shotgun to kill a neighbor’s chickens and pets.
Even if that as-yet unverified incident should prove to be more sick fantasy than fact, it echoes some well-documented cases in which cruelty to animals has been the harbinger of later rampages. One of the most notorious involved Luke Woodham, the Mississippi teenager who in 1997 killed his mother and then opened fire at Pearl High School in 1997, leaving three people dead and seven others injured. It was later learned that before that murderous episode, he had tortured and killed his own pet dog. A study of nine school shootings in the United States found that five of 11 perpetrators had histories of animal abuse. Another study of violent and non-violent offenders in prison found that violent offenders were far more likely as children to have committed extreme acts of abuse against a family pet or neighborhood animals. In a less noted correlation, psychologists also say that children who abuse animals have often themselves been the victims of childhood abuse.
Most people ó especially children ó display empathy and affection for household cats and dogs, as well as for goats, sheep, groundhogs and other animals like those that perished in the petting barn fire. That empathy and profound sense of sadness and loss is what provoked public outrage at the arson, and it’s also what inspired the community support that helped raise money for a new petting barn. That kind of compassion and respect for the Earth’s creatures is one sign of a healthy connection to the world around us. When that connection is absent to the degree of vicious and cruel behavior against animals, it’s a signal of underlying problems that we ignore at risk of dire consequences for people as well as pets.