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Why Do Cannibals Do It?

Bryan Robinson writes for abcnews.com asking why someone would not only kill, but eat his victims. Experts say a killer's need to dominate his victim may be the motivation behind modern cannibalism. Devouring a victim goes a step beyond taking their life and represents the ultimate conquest and sign of domination to a killer.

"It goes back to the old days of the warrior, where they would defeat their enemy and eat the part they most admired, like their brain or their heart," says George Palermo, forensic psychiatrist at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, who worked on the Jeffrey Dahmer case. "It's like they're saying, 'I really killed you. The only way you exist is in me.'"

The practice of cannibalism is recorded as far back as fourth century China and was not taboo in some cultures. In fourth century China and other parts of the Far East and various tribal cultures in Africa, Australia, and Papua, New Guinea, soldiers and warriors saw it as the ultimate conquest of an enemy. It was a way of taking an enemy's greatest trait: eating the heart symbolized taking an enemy?s bravery or strength. Eating an enemy's brain meant ingesting his intelligence.

In some ancient cultures, cannibalism was not seen as an act of conquest or revenge but as a religious experience and tribute to deceased relatives. Experts say some Australian aborigines believed that if a child ate his dead father he would inherit his hunting skills. Eating dead relatives was a way of inheriting their best qualities and ensuring they would live on eternally.

Noting cannibalism's historic significance, experts believe its practice in slayings could illustrate a killer's need to possess his victim. By eating their victims, they are showing an extreme desire to possess their qualities and not share them with anyone else.

"Probably the most likely reason they would do that is to incorporate that person and their most desirable trait into themselves," says Palermo. "It's almost like they're saying, 'I have you. I don't want to be without you and anyone else to have you.'"

Both serial killers and cannibalistic killers have a pent-up rage they need to release. Because of that need, cannibalistic killers, experts say, have a need to kill again and can tend to be serial killers. Ed Gein, who inspired such movies as Psycho and the Silence of the Lambs, was suspected in 15 disappearances while Jeffrey Dahmer killed 17 people. Nathaniel Bar-Jonah has been suspected of being involved in the disappearance of at least two dozen children.

"These are people who have a tremendous desire to destroy, a tremendous amount of hostility that they need to release," Palermo says. "They have something stored up inside them in order to reach the point of where they want to destroy the human body and eat human flesh and they feel a need to release that violence again. ? It's not something you do just once."

Serial killers and cannibal killers both have an insatiable urge to kill. With cannibalistic killers, that urge meshes with a desire to eat human flesh. That desire starts out as an urge and can grow into an addiction, and like serial killers, they will not likely stop until they are caught.

Nathaniel Bar-Jonah is accused of killing and eating 10-year-old Zachary Ramsay. He also faces sentencing for separate sexual assaults on two other Montana boys. Zachary disappeared in February 1996 while on his way to school.

Prosecutors believe Bar-Jonah, who had a long history of child molestation before his encounter with Zachary, abducted the boy and then killed and butchered him. Police suspect he may have fed him to unsuspecting neighbors, who later told investigators the meat they consumed in stew and spaghetti sauce prepared by Bar-Jonah tasted strange.

Bar-Jonah denied any involvement in Zachary's disappearance in letters written to the Great Falls Tribune. However, investigators searched Bar-Jonah's home and found written references to "Little Boy Stew," "Little Kid Dessert," "Little Boy Pot Pies."

Jeffrey Dahmer went to bathhouses and gay bars to find his victims and lured them to his home by either offering them money to pose for photographs. He would drug them, strangle them, then dismember the body and dispose of it. Sometimes he would keep the skull or other body parts as souvenirs. Other times he claimed that he ate the flesh of his victims because he believed that they would come back to life in him.

Albert Fentress was a teacher who, in 1979, killed a neighbor, cut up, and ate parts of the victim's body. Jurors found him not guilty by reason of insanity, and Fentress was sent to a mental institution indefinitely. Some killers may be driven to eat their victims by a more practical need: the desire to hide evidence. Montana prosecutors argue that Bar-Jonah was trying to hide the evidence when he allegedly fed Zachary's remains to unsuspecting neighbors.

They could also be hungry. In 1873, Colorado gold prospector Alferd Packer went on a gold expedition with a group of men in brutally cold conditions in the San Juan Mountains. He found himself in a situation where he had to eat human flesh to survive. "Cannibalism can be driven by hunger, a need for sustenance," says James Starrs, law professor at George Washington University Law School. "With Alferd Packer, there was debate over whether he killed the five victims but there was evidence that he had eaten them. I considered the cut marks on some of the remains, the evidence of defleshing, and it was reasonable to conclude that Alferd Packer's need for food in the merciless winter of the San Juan Mountains, began to eat some of the those who died to survive." Packer was convicted in the deaths of the five men on his expedition and sentenced to 40 years in prison, but he maintained he killed his companions out of self-defense.

Cannibalistic killers have a history of violence. The source of their rage can be an abusive relationship with a parent, a violent relationship with a lover or spouse, or the loss of a loved one. Every time they attack and eat a victim, they are releasing their rage, reliving their relationship or lashing out at an abusive parent.

Ed Gein did not dig up bodies or start killing and eating people's remains until after his mother died in 1945. In psychiatric exams, he revealed an obsession with his deceased mother and the belief that he was really a woman, which may reveal why he kept some body parts as trophies, made jackets of out torsos for himself and made a mask out of a female corpse's face.

In 1897, Chicago butcher Adolph Luetgert killed his wife and made sausages out of her, which he sold to unsuspecting customers. In another case, Daniel Rakowitz of New York killed his girlfriend in 1989 and made soup with her remains that he fed to homeless people.

"Typically, serial killers keep on killing until they're caught," says Mike Rustigan, professor of criminology at San Francisco State University. "Serial murder is an addiction to these guys. It starts out as an urge, then it becomes a compulsion, and eventually it becomes an addiction."

Be glad you?re only addicted to coffee and chocolate.

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