I saw this movie last night at the fabulous Sundance Film Center in Madison Wisconsin. I balked at seeing it, because I found the subject matter upsetting, but Deborah wanted to see either this one or something called "After the Wedding." In all my life I've never seen a movie with the word "wedding" in the title. I didn't want to break my perfect record, so I chose "Zoo."
No, it's not about the kind of zoo that has bored-looking lions, masturbating monkeys, and hippos who look like they would commit suicide except that all sharp instruments have been carefully taken away from them. (I wonder, am I the only one who finds those places seriously depressing?) Anyway, the subject of this movie is even more disturbing than that. A lot more.
Whatever else you think about this movie, there is one thing that makes it interesting: it has made a lot of people really mad.
It is a sort of semi-documentary, with re-enacted scenes rather confusingly interwoven with actual footage, directed by Robinson Devor, about events that came to light after a certain man, known to his associates only as "Mr. Hands" was accidentally killed near Enumclaw in western Washington in 2005. He died of internal bleeding due to a perforated sigmoid colon as a result of having anal sex with a stallion. (The anus was his, not the stallion's.) Eventually, it turned out that he was a member of a club of a half-dozen or so zoophiliacs who met at a local ranch to have sex with Arabian horses. They called themselves "zoos" for short. (Yeah, that kind of zoo.)
This boggles the mind in more ways than one. These "zoos" were all men. The horses, apparently, were male horses. According to the one man we hear being interviewed about this, the men would, er, do the deed by, um, acting sexually interested in the horses, and this was enough to inspire the horse to, well, take the active role and penetrate the man. (There, I've said it!) My first response to this was like Queen Victoria's on learning of the existence of lesbians: I wasn't sure such things were possible! (However, I know you can get animals to do some pretty weird things. Tip o' the sombrero here to Two Blowhards.)
At the time of Mr. Hands' death, having sex with animals was not against the law in the state of Washington. Now, as a result of the public furore inspired by these events, it is. Inevitably, the film raises the issue of whether it should be. It doesn't overtly take sides. It allows both points of view to express themselves. You decide! But it leaves you with the impression that the film makers think it probably should not be.
At one point in the film, the ranch owner tells a story about a horse he had that went blind. The poor creature kept wandering into thickets of thorns, looking for food, and its eyes would be reinjured by the thorns. He considered taking the horse in to be put down. Instead he decided to have its eyes surgically removed, so they wouldn't be poked out any more, and continued to care for it. He said that having a problem like this is not a good enough reason to be put to death. So the film gives the impression that, in some ways, these people were more humane toward their animals than most of us are.
I am not quite sure what I should think about the issue of whether this sort of thing should be illegal or not. Here is a brief tally of factors that I think are relevant.
1. Sex with animals might be regarded is animal abuse/cruelty. Sex with children is regarded as abusive per se. Why not with animals? This argument is made by one of the people in the film.
2. The consent issue. At least one of the zoos in the film says that the animals in this case "consented" to having sex with these men. In the sound track we hear at one point the voice of a radio commentator, instantly recognizable as Rush Limbaugh's, saying that there can be no debatable issue about that at all, because if the animals had not consented, "none of this could have happened"!
I think Limbaugh is confusing consent with desire. Desiring is not consenting. Desire is an animal thing. Consent is very human. In the cases where consent is really important, what you are consenting to is written out, and you consent by signing your name. Of course I don't mean that you can only consent if you can read and right. But the consent argument here infers from the alleged fact to a conclusion about the rights of the animals, whereas something like the reverse of this must take place. When you consent to my doing something to you, you are giving me the right to do that thing, and furthermore you intend to do so. That is the point of indicating consent. You also thereby acknowledge that you are giving up some rights of yours: mainly to complain (about a violation of your rights) later on. Infants can't do this, because they don't have the needed sorts of concepts and understandings. The same is true of (all non-human) animals.
3. This may be an unusual sort of case. Well, I don't know anything about this stuff, but I would think that this sort of zoophilia, animal-penetrates-man, might be unusual, and the man-penetrates-animal sort is more common. That might be a totally different issue. The consent argument, if you find it appealing, cannot be given for the other sort of thing.
4. How abusive is it? You might want to just make the latter sort of zoophilia illegal, on the grounds that it is more abusive, or more obviously abusive (of the animal), than the animal-penetrates-man sort. But how abusive is it? Having something inserted into an orifice and then pulled out. What is the abuse? It horrifies us because we interpret it as sexual, and we have all sorts of ideas and attitudes about that. But all this seems to be completely absent in the animal. It probably does not find being penetrated by the human sexual at all. And even sex itself does not have anything like the meaning for them that it has for us. We see it as an intensely personal connection between people. For them mating is no more personal than any other bodily function. And besides, if this is abusive, there are things that will still be legal to do to animals but are much worse. Like killing and eating them, for instance. So even if man-penetrates-animal is abusive, it might not be abusive enough to justify making it illegal.
Bottom line: Maybe the only reason for illegality here that is consistent both with obvious facts and other policies most of us are already committed to is legal moralism. It can't be because of harm to the animal, because the harm would have to be a "dignitary" harm that does not exist. It would have to be because the act is considered wrong in and of itself, apart from hurtful consequences to anyone. Like many liberals and all libertarians, I am no fan of legal moralism, hence I think this sort of thing should probably be legal.
My rating of "Zoo": *** (out of a possible ****).
Some reviewers compared it to the work of the great Errol Morris (one of my personal heroes -- how many filmmakers have made a movie that got an innocent man out of prison?). You can see Morris's influence in "Zoo", but I would say it is a notch or two below his level.