Halloween morning, more than a quarter-century ago. I don't remember the costume my mother had planned for me, or the pleasant anticipation of trick-or-treating in the days when there seemed no reason to fear the neighbors. I was young, maybe 6, 7 or 8.
What I do remember is the cat.
"Hey, Gina," said the neighbor boy, a tough kid a little older than the rest of us. "Want to see our kitty?"
Another boy held a pillowcase that wiggled and jumped with the movements of the animal inside. Curious, I followed them to the secret place, a shed in the cemetery that bordered our street. There we stopped, and the oldest boy grabbed the cat by the neck and pulled him out.
He was a gray tabby, half-grown and a little mangy. Probably one of the cemetery cats, feral but just a little too friendly for his own good. The animal realized his mistake now, his face pulled back in a look of terror and rage as he struggled to claw and bite his way free.
"What are you going to do?" I asked. "Stick a firecracker up him," he said, and the other boys laughed.
He pulled the firecrackers from one grubby pocket, matches from another. "It'll be like the Fourth of July! Want to watch?"
I ran home crying, as they laughed and yelled after me.
"Run to Mommy!"
"Here, kitty, kitty!"
I didn't tell my parents, though heaven knows I should have. I'd like to think now that the cat was able to connect on one of those frantic jabs, wriggle out of the iron grip and jump free.
The fact is that I don't know what happened after I left, but I do know that the face of that shabby cat lives forever in my memory, long after the names of those mean neighbor boys have faded.
I told the story to a friend not long ago, a father of two young sons. His response?
"Kids can be cruel," he shrugged.
His response is typical for a society that doesn't take animal cruelty very seriously, that doesn't see the link between such behavior toward animals and toward people.
Those who study violence know it all too well.
They know that an overwhelming number of convicted criminals have animal cruelty in their past. That the nation's most infamous mass murderers -- Ted Bundy, Albert DeSalvo and Jeffrey
Dahmer among them -- practiced their "craft" on animals first. They know that cruelty toward animals is a key link in the cycle of child abuse, as battered children look for something weaker to punish as they've been punished -- and later, their lessons learned, pass them along to another generation.
Last week, a cruelly neglected elderly woman was removed from her Sacramento, Calif., home, her grandchildren arrested for the crime. The news story mentioned that the house was a familiar stop to humane officers, who'd pulled out neglected dogs in the past.
Coincidence? Hardly. Once it puts down roots, cruelty only grows stronger, becoming bolder as it chooses its victims. A cat, then a child. A dog, then an elderly woman. There's no excuse for it, not ever.
It's important to us all -- especially parents and those who work with children -- to take animal cruelty seriously, and not just accept it as a normal part of life and of growing up. Stop cruelty early and we not only help animals, but also spare the human victims that come later.
Let's put the emphasis on kindness instead, on respect for living beings. Let that percolate through, and I'm guessing we'll see some changes in the evermore frightening world we live in.
Until then, keep your pets inside, especially this Halloween weekend.
Ms. Spadafori is a licensed pet trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.