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by Yun Lou

You might remember about a month ago, a 7-year-old boy fed 13 animals to a crocodile at the Alice Springs Reptile Centre. During his 30-minute killing spree, the boy beat animals to death with a rock, then threw them to the croc to finish off. Because the boy was under 10 years of age he escaped a criminal charge - but considering the level of public debate about the social impacts of youth violence, is it time to revisit our assumptions about childhood innocence and discipline?

Professor Mark Findlay, director of the Institute of Criminology, tells me there has been a long debate in Australia about raising the age at which criminal responsibility is recognised. In common law the statutory age of responsibility used to be 7. However, in 2000 the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania revised that age limit. In those jurisdictions it used to be 8 and 7 years old respectively, but now in all states of Australia the standard age at which children are deemed to be eligible for prosecution is 10 years old.

This is because many children are incapable of moral reasoning and decision-making capabilities until the age of 10. Associate Professor Andrew Martin, a registered educational and child psychologist, discusses the relationship between their cognitive state and their behaviour. He indicates that most children under 10 do not understand that what they do will lead to a consequence.

Martin says the age at which a child is considered developed enough to make responsible decisions depends on the society. “At the age of 10, there will be a particular stage of understanding of what is right or wrong - and impulse control can be difficult.”

Findlay says, “The move to 10, I think has been to recognise that children take...a longer time to understand legal responsibility when doing things we consider to be cruel. Sometimes some children seem to be more aware, more able to understand right and wrong while other children, no.”

However, guardians of younger children who commit serious crimes can be made to pay damages to the victims. “In terms of damages, it really depends on the value of the animals," says Findlay. He indicates that the court may choose to give what are called "exemplary damages" to demonstrate that what a perpetrator has done is wrong.

Since young children cannot be charged and tried for criminal activities, many people would ask whether they should be taught a lesson with some other form of punishment. However, Findlay does not think that punishing the Alice Springs boy, for example, would make much of a difference.

“Children at that age do not make rational decisions about whether they are going to do something good or bad. They also do not sit down and read newspapers and decide well, the punishment for that was very great. Therefore, we won’t do that.”

If we cannot put the blame onto the child, then who should be responsible for this public loss of the animals? Generally we may think the child’s guardians should pay damages for this loss and according to the Herald-Sun’s report, the zoo is currently considering suing the parents.

But there is also a question in the Alice Springs case about whether the zoo was liable for ensuring better security for its exhibits. In considering the legal outcomes it is important to work out the responsibility of each party. Findlay argues that the responsibility could be shared by both the child’s parents and the zoo in this case.

“The difficulty is if you punished the parents, then what impact would this have on the child anyway? Maybe none. Also, the parents may have been careful with this child. He just could be a difficult or cunning child, I don’t know. But I suppose with the damages the question is who has the money to pay. Obviously, it’s not the child. So the first group you go to would be parents.”

I wonder whether in fact the zoo itself has the sole responsibility to keep those animals safe. “It would be unfair to say the zoo has all the responsibility,” Findlay says. “But in tort law, responsibility is shared. So there might be some percentage responsibility for zoo, some percentage responsibility for parents.”

The tragedy has happened already. However, this sort of treatment of animals could be avoided. The law will let the children escape punishment because of their limited cognitive ability. But can we do something to prevent the occurrence of such incidents again? Findlay suggests that we should consider what we do beyond criminal law to try to regulate the children’s behaviour.

“What would be more important is the discussion about what happened.” He thinks the education is essential. “Why would any little boy want to destroy animals in this way? So maybe better than using the criminal law as a force for change, we should think about trying to educate children, particularly those children who have an aggressive nature and to discuss the importance of keeping animals safe.”

Children have trouble controlling their impulses. So formal education is an important factor which affects whether a child will understand that a certain act is wrong. Martin also gives many suggestions of preventing children’s problem behaviour.

Adults should explain to children why something is wrong or right; make sure children observe good modelling; monitor what they are watching and listening to; and not forget rewards for good behaviour – but rewards must be used wisely.

“Consequences are a very powerful way of letting children feel they do something wrong,” Martin says. “For example, if your children break the rule, there is no television for 2 days. But rewards, you should use them very carefully. Their intrinsic motivation is they want to help because they want to help, not (because) they want to help so they get money.”


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Here's a conundrum

Here's a conundrum straight  from the light touch of a child's finger on the very edge of space and time infinity.

What if the kid was part of a tour group from the Czech Republic? And the kid's father had just been taken by a crocodile but no one could remember whether it was the big bull crocodile lounging in the mud, or the smaller female crocodile beside him, that did the terrible deed?

And all the kid was trying to do was prove  that the cheque is in the mail?

actually - I forgot

thank you Yun Lou for a well presented article.  Are you one of our famous students?

I share your pain, Malcolm B. Why do we put up with these cats?

The passage of time

"Would the child simply have been wasting time..."

Nah, the kid was simply using his time to do a time and motion exercise; how long does it  take time to pass?

Maybe the same kid who pushed a Grand Daddy clock out of a window. He wanted to see if time could fly.

Cherry picking

It wasn't long ago we had a hero who fed animals to crocodiles and when he was finally stung by a stingray and died, the nation went into mourning. The result, some kid called Bindi has a brilliant new career out of it all.

We put too much onto kids and their actions and unfairly cherry pick the results. They're little criminals when they misbehave and their parents should be held responsible or they're angels depending upon what authorities and the media decide.

My conclusion - I'm on the side of Germaine Greer in this one - the crocs don't have a particularly great life nor did the poor dead chook that become famous when the Crocodile Hunter almost handed over his kid instead of the chicken. Of course this lad is innocent.

Cat Chutzpah

Can't turn my back for a minute and the fucking cat gets to the keyboard.

Between the Croc and the cat, my money would be on the cat.

Now it is true that crocs like putrid meat but the inherent cruelty in this episode is depriving it of the initial chase and ritual drowning - good exercise for the croc. After all, our crocs are getting quite lazy.

Pulitzer can't be far away

It is not often that a piece of journalism as thoughtful, insightful, well-researched, deep, meaningful and inspirational as this graces the virtual pages of Webdiary. Nor is it often when dealing with themes of such universal applicability that one’s thoughts are translated from the mundanity of the immediate story and what is obviously meant, on reflexion, to be comment on the universality of the human condition to thoughts of high literature.

What, for example, if this faux-innocent child had fed the crocodile an alarm clock, I mused.

Would the child simply have been wasting time, or is there a wider significance bearing on the interaction of naïveté, time and nature?

Was it a child just such as this that moved J.M. Barrie to pen his literary masterpiece Peter Pan? Certainly, it might go a long way to explaining the enigma of the lost boys. What of Tinkerbell? Is there a hidden theme of sexual repression here? The lost child, ever destined to be homosexual, yet never grow up into a complete adult because of the presence of a faerie in his life.

What then of the role of Captain Hook, the maimed evil that lurks within us all? The constant battle of that evil with nature represented by the crocodile ever keeping pace (and time) with the dark side that dwells in our hearts, ever-present, ever-threatening, ever ready to consume us at a gulp.

A truly thought provoking article. Please, no more until we poor Webdiarists have come to terms with and solved its myriad conundrums.

This one is easy ...

You can only wish all questions of criminality, moral responsibility and congenital human cruelty were as simple to answer as this one.

Feed the kid to the crocodile.

Solves everything.

Fast food

Feeding dead animals to a croc is not necessarily cruel, to either the croc or the dead animals. Most of us eat dead animals (yum) on a regular basis and don't consider it cruel.

Anyway crocs prefer their meat dead (just like us) and somewhat putrefied at best (we prefer ours less putrefied or not at all depending on the flesh). The only difference between us and crocs is that crocs in general do their own killing while people in general don't. Oh and we look a little bit different.

The cruelty bit would relate to the manner in which the once living animal was depatched.

Having said that, crocs have to eat something that was once living. The kid in fact was saving other poor animals from a gruesome and cruel crocodile death by introducing the croc to fast food.

The Zoo should have been more careful with its fast food if they wanted to keep it.

One day the kid will probably end up making dead animal burgers at Macas. The Zoo will end up making their premises kid safe. All the dead animals will have arrived happily in dead animal heaven. And the dear old  croc will live happily ever after for the next three hundred years.

Or maybe the kid ends up a serial killer who kills and feeds on pollies and fat cats?

Listen Albatross

Enough with the cat jokes already. We are discussing reptiles here - yum. Don't like the feet but - Asian food.

Fresh meat

Thank you, Malcolm. Not only have I not stopped chuckling, but you’ve said everything that needs to be said on this topic (though that’s not going to stop me).

I didn’t catch this gem at that time, but it seems to have spread around the world. This blog had 1200 comments.

They do need to lock the kid up and throw away the key. As a boy, I used to kill 1000s of ants by burning their hive (this species built hives by gluing live tree leaves together, and on a lazy afternoon, I’d hold a torch under the hive). The authorities failed to lock me up, and look at the adult – authorising my troops to kill hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. How would the world have reacted if the boy had actually eaten the lizards? Though I can’t recall eating lizards, I’ve relished the flesh of thousands of cows, lambs, chickens, fish ...

Don’t worry world, we’re onto it. We’ve ordered the Intervention.

PS If you are interested in law, Yun Lou, this is an essential breath of fresh air. Oh, the innocence of youth....

I think you are missing the point here

Feeding dead animals to crocodiles is inherently cruel. Someone should get the RSPCA in on the side of the crocodile.

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