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Anatomy of an outdoor thief

10/29/2010
Don Mulligan

When most people are victimized by theft of any sort, they typically feel violated and helpless. For some, the resultant emotions run deeper, leaving them feeling not only emasculated but also bent on revenge.

This holds true across society, though some segments of the population are prone to a more passionate reaction than others.

Outdoorsmen and women are certainly not an angrier or more violent lot than vegetarians, cyclists or any other social group, but they do have some unique qualities that set them apart.

Those qualities make them less likely to take victimization of any sort lying down.

By definition, hunting requires a person to be independent, woods smart and a creative problem solver. Without these traits, most hunters and fishermen would quickly succumb to life-threatening situations and nonfunctioning essential gear.

This inherent self-sufficiency makes it hard for outdoorsmen to tolerate people who steal from them. It's almost impossible for them to understand how anyone could take things they didn't earn.

So, when someone steals gear out of the back of their pickup truck, or their tree stand or trail camera from the field, they not only want it back, they also want to know what sort of person would do such a thing.

Most sportsmen's initial gut evaluation of the person who took their hard-earned belongings is that the crook must have been a real lowlife bum who was likely raised by savages.

While there often is some truth to parts of that supposition, the thief's clinical reality is usually more complicated.

A life of crime

It is widely accepted in clinical circles that people steal for any one of a couple very distinct reasons.

Some folks steal because they need the things they take. Stealing food because you are hungry falls into this category.

Others steal because they think they need or deserve the thing they stole but really don't by society's standards.

Advertisers are only doing their job when they convince sportsmen they are missing out if they don't have the newest bow, gun or trail camera. Weak-minded individuals or people already inclined to a life of crime use this as rationalization to do what ever it takes to "get what they deserve."

Some people steal for attention. Neglected adolescents are a good example here.

The last group of thieves breaks the law out of spite or revenge. This happens a lot in the outdoor world. Border wars cause lots of late-night crime sprees in woods all over the country.

But whatever the reason for their crime, most thieves can be neatly diagnosed and lumped into one category.

Like thieves in every other segment of society, adult outdoor gear thieves usually suffer from a personality disorder. More specifically, they can usually be diagnosed as having Antisocial Personality Disorder.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders, "the essential feature of APD is a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and the violation of the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood."

One of the qualifiers for the diagnosis includes: "a failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest."

Additionally, to qualify for APD, the perpetrator must be at least 18-years-old and must have qualified for a Conduct Disorder diagnosis before the age of 15.

The DSM also says they "typically display a lack of sincere remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another."

This means the guy stealing the stands and trail cameras from the farm has likely been doing it since he was a kid. It also means he has no conscience.

In other words, don't expect him to stop any time soon unless he is in jail.

Little hope

The goal of therapy with these individuals is to first determine why the person is stealing. Only then can thieves move on to understanding where the antisocial behavior began.

At the risk of sounding like a sitcom cliché, more often than not, APD is usually traceable to a screwed-up childhood. Unlike most sitcom psychology, however, APD isn't typically mom's fault. It's dad's fault.

It's a good bet the guy repeatedly stealing tree stands grew up in a house where either there was no male figure to teach him right from wrong, or he observed the adult male in his life stealing.

Boys learn to be men from men, and if the man in a boy's life steals, fights, drinks, cusses, etc, that becomes normative behavior for that child. As adults APDs know some behaviors are antisocial, but they aren't nearly as taboo as they are for adults who grew up around men who modeled respectful, socially acceptable behavior.

In short, the person stealing your tree stands was probably programmed to be a criminal, and thinks the only thing he ever does wrong is get caught.

Reprogramming hardened APDs in therapy or jail is difficult and often not possible. In fact, many therapists refuse to work with people with personality disorders because they are so deceptive and entrenched in their flawed logic.

When they do find a therapist willing to work with them (usually because they are court ordered), a good clinician does what victims of outdoor theft should do.

In every case, it is important to make violators pay a heavy price by always prosecuting. Making them hit bottom will deter some entry-level thieves who might still have a scintilla of decency left in them.

In the case of long-term APDs, jail helps only because it puts them out of commission for a while. With any luck, their incarceration will coincide with deer season.


Besides being an outdoor writer for the past 20 years, Don Mulligan is also a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a private practice in central Indiana.