logo en full

Dark (or hidden) acts of animal cruelty are defined as acts of violence against animals that have never been reported, hence have not been registered. These undisclosed acts are an indication that social stigmatization of these acts is still not sufficient and that the tolerance ratio related to animal suffering is still too high. Doctor Joanna Stojer-Polańska, criminologist from SWPS University in Katowice writes about the undetected and unreported acts of animal cruelty, the scale of the problem and the ways of counteracting this phenomenon.

Dark figure of crime

The dark figure of crime is defined as crimes that are not included in official crime statistics. Most likely, because they have never been reported to the police or to the justice system. This means that these behaviors remain hidden and no one gets punished for the acts that have been committed.

The dark figure of crime includes not only the incidents that no one knows about, but also those that people do not want to know about. Sometimes people prefer not to hear the sounds of violence next door or they do not want to hear about sexual abuse inflicted on their family members. The decision to not report a crime may stem from various reasons, for example: lack of awarness that a given behavior is classified as a crime, fear for one’s safety, shame, fear of being judged or an inability to report the crime. Acts of animal cruelty are often not reported for the same reasons.

Acts of animal cruelty

Nowadays, we can talk about crimes against animals, because acts of animal cruelty have been formally classified as crimes. In 1997, Poland passed the Animal Protection Act, however several other acts also mandate respect towards animals and prohibit cruelty towards animals (e.g. the 15 January 2015 act on the protection of animals used for experimental and other scientific purposes and the 11 March 2004 act on the protection of animal health and the prevention of infectious diseases in animals). It is easy to check police crime statistics, which show how many people have been sentenced for specific crimes against animals in a given year, because the law provides various types of punishment aligned with specific crimes. For police reports on animal cruelty in Poland (in Polish) go to »

International law also regulates various aspects of animal rights. There are laws pertaining to animals used for research purposes in laboratories, to animals employed by the police or the military, to animal testing of drugs and beauty products as well as to exotic animals or the protected species. These laws and regulations are rarely read by average citizens.

An increasing number of people realizes that our animal friends should be treated well and not just our pets, but also wild animals. Wild animals are also victims of crimes, for example illegal hunting for bears, lions, whales – “just for fun or sport”, poaching in forests to make money, or collecting hunting trophies, such as horns of rhinoceros. It is difficult to count these incidents and it is difficult to take the perpetrators to court.

Statistics versus real life

I have mentioned that you can check crime statistics, but the dark figure of crime is the number that has not been reported and will not be found in these tables. When crimes are committed against animals, the animal victims are not able to fight for their rights. Who is supposed to report the crime?

If people intentionally hurt animals, for example they torture a dog or a cat at home, the chance of punishing these individuals is miniscule. Unless someone else notices the crime and reports it. Perhaps a neighbor? Perhaps someone who saw and heard a yelping dog, locked on a balcony without food and water, for several days? Someone, who is not afraid of the dog owner and who understands that one should react not only when witnessing violence against people, but also when seeing violence against animals. Experience indicates that people who commit animal cruelty acts often perpetrate violence against people, too. An act of animal cruelty is a warning sign that the person is dangerous and may commit other acts of violence. Unfortunately, cases of violence against people are not always reported by witnesses or by the victims themselves, either.

No victim no crime?

Faultless animals become victims of abusers. Yet, some people still believe that harming animals “is no big deal”.

Some people are not aware that one can commit a crime against an animal, because they treat animals as objects. Sometimes, it stems from the lack of education, sometimes from the wrongly understood “tradition”, for example: “dogs have always been chained, so we will keep it this way.” Dogs cannot be chained all the time, because the law forbids it. However, the law is one thing and a shift in awareness is another. Real life is the third aspect. You can still see a chained dog here and there, though thankfully, not as often as before.

An increasing number of people realizes that our animal friends should be treated well and not just our pets, but also wild animals. Wild animals are also victims of crimes, for example illegal hunting for bears, lions, whales – “just for fun or sport”, poaching in forests to make money, or collecting hunting trophies, such as horns of rhinoceros. It is difficult to count these incidents and it is difficult to take the perpetrators to court.

Many animal cruelty acts are committed for financial gain. For example, pseudo breeding farms, where animals are treated as breading machines for the production of “cute” puppies or kittens. Usually, it concerns cats and dogs, but sometimes it also relates to horses and other animals that become “fashionable”. In particular, it pertains to certain breeds and colorations of animals, because a client wants a puppy with a small muzzle and one black spot.

Breeding farms producing exotic animals are also popular. Not all of them are legal, but supply is driven by demand. If people insist that they will pay for the import of a certain exotic animal, despite the fact that the animal is on the list of protected spices, which makes the sale of these animals illegal, they will always find someone, who will deliver such an animal. Regardless of animal suffering during transport and the fact that poachers will have to capture several animals, because some of them will die during transport. The Interpol’s statistics indicate that trade of protected animals is the third, after gun and drug trade, illegal source of income on international markets.

Finally, there are cases of premeditated animal cruelty, because kicking a dog “is not a big deal”. Sometimes, people harm animals, because they know that animals will not retaliate and will not report the crime. The number of such cases is most difficult to trace! Because perpetrators know they are doing something wrong, but they do not condemn themselves, but rather they justify their own behavior. Occasionally, people suffering from various mental disorders harm animals, but they not always realize what they are doing.

Unfortunately, animal cruelty often results in animals’ death and these cases usually go undetected. There have been cases of kittens drowned in sacks, dogs chained to trees in forests and horses that were starved to death. How many animals have never been found and could not be rescued? Only people can help. Random witnesses. Volunteers working for animal rights foundations. Anyone, who cares about animals.

Wronged animals

Finally, there are situations when formally a crime has not been committed, but animals have been harmed. This happens in case of animal slaughter – after all we eat animals. Or when animals get hurt by cars unintentionally. Small animals, such as cats, foxes or martens often get killed instantly. In these instances, cars usually are not damaged and drivers are often not aware that they hit an animal. Occasionally, in accidents involving cars and big animal, such as moose, people may die. But the roads through forests have been built by people....

On one hand, the 21st century is considered to be the age of animal rights. The age of acknowledging that animals do have rights. Animals have always had duties. They have been used to carry loads, draw vehicles and machinery during peace and during war and they have been human companions like cats and dogs in the European culture. Or they have served as food (e.g. pigs and cows) or as trophies (e.g. bear skins displayed over fireplaces) or holiday souvenirs (e.g. ashtrays made of a gorilla’s hand bones or handbags made of alligator skin). Furs are no longer fashionable and dogs are no longer commonly chained as they used to be, but we still have a lot more to do!


There is no doubt that people take advantage of animals for various reasons. However, in most cases people do not mean any harm. At least initially. But what happens later? For example animals in sport. Of course, when they are winning, they are pampered. However, what happens when they are no longer needed? And at home? A puppy for Christmas. Awww... so cute! But when the puppy pees on the floor or makes a mess, it often ends up in an animal shelter or on the street. Similarly during summers, when animals interfere with summer vacation plans.

Numerous animals selflessly work for people. In many countries, dogs and horses are employed by the police and the military. As “officers” they work in dangerous circumstances and in those cases they are taken care of, they are well fed and have easy access to veterinary services. But when they become old and sick, they not always find a happy home. And this is where we should teach people how to help wisely! We should promote positive behaviors, instead of just shocking public opinion with stories of animal cruelty.

In Gierałtów near Poznań (western Poland), there is a home for retired dogs and horses, called Zakątek Weteranów (Veternas’ Corner). Medical and survival support is much needed! We should think about a form of retirement for animals that have worked very hard for all of us. We need overall system solutions in this regard. We should also honor the animals that gave their lives for people. Not only our pets, but also rescue, police and military animals.

We should also teach people how to safely deal with animals, for example how to differentiate between legitimate animal breeders and pseudo-breeders, so that people do not support the latter due to lack of awareness. We should educate the public about animal sterilization so that we can avoid killing the unwanted young. And people should not be reminded that animals are our friends.

Don’t be a bystander when you witness animal cruelty. It is hard to advise someone from afar what do to in a given situation, because one must also consider the safety of the witness. Both, the perpetrator and the injured animal, may be dangerous. It is also advisable to become familiar with the laws and regulations pertaining to repossessing of animals. Behaviors of individual people lead to big social changes. And we count on such changes.

Common sense and education

Nowadays, people are very much attached to their pets and treat them as family members. Animals get Christmas gifts and visit beauty parlors. However, we should be careful not to go too far in this respect and harm the animals in this way. Sometimes, people tend to go from one extreme to another. Perhaps your “baby pet” would rather run around the backyard, instead of sitting with you at the table, wearing a fashionable outfit. Or instead of spending time in a well-furnished terrarium, the animal might prefer to live free in the wild. It is not possible to free all caged animals now, but it is possible to stop caging more of them.

Every other day, we hear news that someone severely hurt a puppy or threw an old dog from a car or drowned kittens in a river or forgot an animal in a hot car in the summer. The law on protection of animals provides for penalties for these types of behaviors. However, there are many legal, yet harmful behaviors, such as animal experiments. But there are also excellent initiatives organized by good people, such as adoptions of animals that have been used for animal experiments. Big-hearted people run foster homes for guinea pigs that have been used for research, that helped the mankind and now they need good homes and loving owners. Animals, which survive animal testing and are in good shape, are usually put to sleep. Foster homes save them and give these laboratory animals second happier lives.

Nowadays, many cases of animal cruelty are brought to public attention, because people have become more aware of the problem. The fact that we more often hear about these cases does not result from people being more cruel, but from the fact that the general public is more sensitive to the suffering of others. I hope that more and more people intuitively understands that we should not hurt animals, without public awareness campaigns on this subject.

However, we should educate people, for example through the above-noted campaigns, how to react in the face of improper behavior and how to help wisely. It is important to provide perpetual education on the right treatment of animals. We should teach our children about it! We might also consider introducing regulations related to animal ownership. If someone thinks that animals can be treated like objects, a more complex procedure of buying an animal should detect it, fines could be imposed and social stigmatization could occur. Perhaps not everyone should be permitted to own animals?

There is also an issue of animal police. People who report acts of animal cruelty often are informed that the police must first attend to more urgent cases related to helping people. Therefore, we might need to think of establishing a special unit for animal protection. Surely, it would help to cut down on the dark figure of animal cruelty incidents.


joanna stojer

About the author

Joanna Stojer-Polańska, Ph.D. - Joanna Stojer-Polańska, Ph.D - legal expert and forensic scientist. Academic lecturer and educator in criminalistics, criminology and law enforcement. Her research interests include forensic medicine, profiling, suicides, and crime prevention. At SWPS University in Katowice, she lectures about the dark (or hidden) figure of crime, i.e. unreported crimes.