Animal cruelty a gateway crime

I saw as a child a deliberate act of cruelty that I've never been able to erase from my memory.

A kitten, fully alive and loving the heat of the sun, was rolling in the dust in a car park behind the main street in Masterton, where my family was shopping.

I watched as a boy not much older than me rode towards it on his bicycle, and then deliberately aimed at and ran over it.

Time froze.

Evil is as casual as this, the universe seemed to say, under a blue sky on a sunny day; the boy will ride off, the kitten will be a lump of blood and pain and fur, and you will be helpless. Evil entered my world.

I was brought up with pets, responsible for feeding and looking after my canary, and loving our cats.

When the inevitable happened, and the canary was snatched by one of the cats, I was sad, but not frozen in shock as I was at the kitten's death. It was explained to me that this was in the nature of animals, and that made sense.

But I have never been able to make sense of human violence. In my personal pantheon of sins, the truly unforgivable one is deliberate cruelty, so reports of cruelty to children and animals - and they are often linked - always upset me.

It was reassuring, then, to read about the 12-year-old Cannons Creek boy who last week saved a yelping dog from being tormented, quite possibly to death, by a group of boys about his own age.

The dog in question is a cute-looking mutt, a small terrier cross with shaggy white fur and bright eyes. Most people would smile at the sight of it.

These boys were holding it down and taking turns to kick it. One was hitting it with a cricket bat. It was their idea of something to do.

I was not reassured by the SPCA's comment that the incident was being investigated with police help.

"Because of the ages, there's not a lot we can do prosecution wise, but it does reinforce the importance of having education in schools about things like this. You just have to wonder what's going on to make them think this is acceptable behaviour," Wellington SPCA inspector Kaycee Polkinghorn said.

"I just hope there are more kids out there who are willing to stand up for what's right and not be afraid to say it."

So do I. Absolutely. Thank goodness for this one.

But there are a couple of things in what Ms Polkinghorn said that are amiss in the world at large.

It is not schools that should be teaching children to respect living things and protect the vulnerable, but parents, neighbours, family and friends.

Knowledge of right and wrong should be ingrained into a child by the time they start school, where there is too much going on already to expect teachers to take responsibility for it.

Teachers are not society's moral guardians, anyway; they are no better or worse than the rest of us, and their job is to teach, not to parent.

We - possibly apart from the few people who attend church - have no moral guardians to call on, no recourse to any guidance other than our own.

We like it that way, but there are times when the system doesn't work very well, as in telling 12-year-old boys why and how tormenting helpless animals - or humans - is despicable, let alone setting an example by living a life free of brutality yourself.

The courts are no substitute. What happens there is more about what you can get away with than how you ought to behave, a system designed to reinforce the cynicism of the morally slack, lawyers and clients alike.

I am not sure what fills this need, but I do know that I want to hear that the parents of these boys, and the boys themselves, are called to account for the ugly incident.

It matters. All small cruelties do.

We know that tormenting animals as a child is the first step towards a life of causing harm, and shouldn't believe we can do nothing when it happens.

Those who are deliberately cruel to animals are in training to be capable of anything, and if they're left unchecked, it will be people next.

The Dominion Post