Heart to Heart with Frank Ascione, PhD

Academia and humane interests converge at University of Denver
By Karen B. London PhD, November 2009

Dr. Frank Ascione

Frank Ascione, PhD, is the first professor to serve as the new American Humane Endowed Chair and executive director of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection in the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver (DU). This position is significant because it is a collaboration between a major academic institution and a major animal welfare agency—the American Humane Association—made possible through donor and university support. And it’s rare in that it is not in a veterinary school, a psychology department or a child-development program, but rather, in a graduate school of social work, where PhDs as well as clinicians are trained. During our interview, I was delighted, but not surprised, to learn that Dr. Ascione combines rigorous scientific inquiry with a passion for people and animals, which makes for the best sort of caring: the informed kind. He is a positive, energetic person with a lot of gratitude to go around. One of his first comments during our interview was, “I have high enthusiasm for this change in my career and great appreciation for those who made it possible.” He is sincerely interested in learning about domestic violence, animal cruelty and the links between them so that he can use that information to develop effective prevention and intervention programs. Expect more great work from Professor Ascione and his collaborators in the near future.

 

Bark: Why did you decide to accept the offer to occupy the new endowed chair?

Frank Ascione: I didn’t want to leave Utah at the time the position first opened, but I spent half a semester at DU and they effectively romanced me. It’s a great place with so much respect for students and for scholarly activity. The university is vibrant and Denver is a fantastic city. The faculty, students and staff at DU were so affirming of my work.

 

B: What are your primary goals in your new position?

FA: I’m a child psychologist by training, but I am moving to a graduate school of social work. My interests are in animal abuse, child abuse, domestic violence and elder abuse, and those all involve social work. I expect to have a great deal in common with my new colleagues. The potential is there for an amazing amount of collaboration, and my goal is to foster collaboration between those interested in animal welfare and groups working with and studying family violence, child abuse and elders.

 

B: What initially made you investigate the links between domestic violence, child abuse and animal abuse?

FA: I was developing an assessment instrument for measuring abuse by children to animals or positive interactions with animals. When I began to interview children who abuse animals, about 5 percent in the community reported abusing animals and about 10 to 15 percent of kids with mental health issues reported it, so it was not a common behavior. I decided to look at areas where there was a higher frequency of violence. I interviewed women in domestic violence shelters and found that 54 percent of women in shelters reported that their abusers hurt or killed one or more of their pets. In a control group with no violence in the home, 5 percent of the partners hurt or killed a pet.

 

B: How do you label yourself professionally? Professor? Author? Social Worker?

FA: I’m a child psychologist, though I’m not a clinician. I’ve never conducted therapy nor am I trained or qualified to do so. I realized mid-career that my profession had ignored the role of animals in the lives of children. I worked on the role of animals in children’s lives, then into issues of who abuses.

 

B: What ways have you seen academia change in recent years in terms of attitudes towards the practical issues of interest to you?

FA: One of the hopes I’ve had in my work is I want to focus on the kind of research that has some socially valuable component to it. There’s a term, “urgent knowing,” which means that there is a need in society and not enough information about it. For example, there was this idea that people in situations of domestic violence delay leaving because they are afraid to leave their pets behind, but until you put a number on it, information that was needed to deal with it or to pass legislation about it was not available.

 

B: What countries do you consider role models for the sort of programs you’d like to see established in this country?

FA: Both the UK and Australia are a bit ahead of us with animal welfare programs and respect for the human-animal bond. The UK, which originated these programs, has one national animal protection agency (the RSPCA), so they have a commonality of laws across the whole country. We have 50 different laws.

 

B: Are you generally encouraged or discouraged with the state of the human-animal bond?

FA: I am encouraged partly because we have programs developing where this is being taken seriously academically and we’re also seeing people seriously evaluating programs in which people are engaged. There are many programs that incorporate interactions with animals, but they are not routinely being evaluated. It is essential that we sift good from bad, and we need studies of what’s working and what’s not so we can focus on the most effective programs.

 

B: How has the economic recession affected the relationship between people and their pets?

FA: I’m not an economist, but I’m aware of the issues. Foreclosures lead to pet abandonment in increased numbers. Financial trouble means that we tend to see more problems with child abuse and domestic violence. In the aftermath of disasters, we do see an increase in violence.

 

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.