Sunday, June 10, 2007

Not that Kind of Zoo

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.


deekay said...

I don't think bestiality should be illegal although I do find it very weird and disgusting. I suppose one could penalize zoo's as crazy but I don't know how you could automatically declare them mentally incompetent.

One thing I did notice about the movie was that even though bestiality wasn't illegal in Washington, these guys were very secretive. This is because we take care of all sorts of weird and disgusting behavior through our social mores rather than our legal sanctions.

Lester Hunt said...


That is a good point. We often talk as though there are only two possibilities: an activity is either legally interdicted or it is permitted. If the social stigma is so horrific that those who do the activity must skulk in the shadows, is it really "permitted"? A society has more than just these two responses.

Craig D said...


Sorry, that's all I got.

Lester Hunt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lester Hunt said...


Huh? What Trojans? I don't get it! What are you saying to me here?

Craig D said...

Well, instead of the Trojans being inside the horse, was the horse inside a Trojan?

On to other musings...

Do these "horse lovers" consider themselves to be homosexual, I wonder?

Seems to me I read somewhere that the NAMBLA* crowd (guys who like to have sex with boys 8 years old and under) don't consider themselves "gay," they're just "boy lovers" and some day society will accept the beauty of that orientation.

This also puts me in mind of those lists of enormous objects that are routinely removed from men's rectums in the ER, e.g. Mrs. Butterworths bottles, lightbulbs, animals, etc.

My prediction: "ZOO" will not be hailed as "the feel-good hit of the Summer."

*North American Man-Boy Love Association

Anonymous said...

Possibly he's referring to condoms? Are there disease risks associated with having unprotected sex with animals, and might such risks pose a larger public health hazard? AIDS, if I remember correctly, is thought to have originated with some sort of monkey -- not, as far as I know, through sexual intercourse, but it well might have been. Is there such a thing as horse flu? This must be what "Trojans" refers to.

Lester Hunt said...

Anon., That's what I thought at first, too. But as you see, above, we were wrong.

Craig, As to your question, I guess you could call them "heterospecific."

*My prediction: "ZOO" will not be hailed as "the feel-good hit of the Summer."*

Yyyep. And I predict it will never be called "the perfect date movie."

Anonymous said...

Re: Craig d's remarks.

I see that I was wrong about the Trojans. Moving on to the question of whether zoos of this ilk self-identify as homosexuals, I would point out:

1) Homosexuality does not equal a desire to engage in anal intercourse, either actively or passively. It does not reduce to a given sexual technique. In addition, if a zoo goes out of his way to deny that he's homosexual, there's a good chance that he isn't. A stallion is so very different from a human being that probably the closest term of comparison to a horse's phallus for human sexual purposes would be a gigantic dildo. And the use of dildos, as we all know, is not limited to male homosexuals. Nor is obsession with size. The common expression "hung like a horse," used by men and women alike, usually indicates in our culture something desirable, does it not?

2) Heterosexual male openness to various degrees of anal play involving either his own anus or his partner's is by no means a rarity. The anus is an erogenous zone, like it or not. Female-on-male penetration using strap-on dildos -- an arrangement referred to by today's metrosexual as "pegging" -- is an extension of this interest in anal play. There's no reason I can think of why a heterosexual male, so inclined, might not in time develop a size obsession that only a horse could satisfied. It's possible.

3) Heterosexual female fantasies of being mounted by a horse are also not uncommon. In Robinson Jeffers' narrative poem "Roan Stallion," the excited heroine murmurs to the stallion in the brilliant moonlight: "Oh if I could bare you!" The famous donkey shows of Tijuana demonstrate that women sometimes can bear it. If riding a horse can stimulate a young girl's fancy, who knows what she might get up to in the stables? Human beings are extraordinary in nothing if not in their capacity to elaborate on the sexual instinct.

Horse-on-man sexuality, in other words, is not an obvious segue to gay bashing, any more than is child molestation. But perhaps I misunderstand your point.

In my opinion, the desire to be penetrated by a horse is one of the more egregious examples of what can happen to people when they fail to rationally govern their sexual fantasies. To allow such exorbitant fantasies to develop into appetites, and the appetites to develop into actions, greatly reduces an individual's chance to integrate his or her sexuality into a healthy and flourishing life. That's to put it mildly.

As to whether horse-on-human "love" should be illegal, I agree with Professor Hunt that the practice probably doesn't pass the standard criteria for determining criminality. Nevertheless, I do tend to think that it's cruel to the animals involved. Cruel to their dignity. Is a horse not capable of pride?

Craig D said...


No, I meant Trojan condoms as well as the "Trojan horse" idea. (I think that's how they came up with the brand name!)

You raise some good points about sexuality. e.g. "Homosexuality does... not reduce to a given sexual technique."

I guess it would be an oversimplification of "homosexuality" to define it as one male wanting another male's penis inserted into his body so as to engender sexual fulfillment. (That panders to the "oh, it's all about sex with those people" mindset.)

"Horse-on-man sexuality, in other words, is not an obvious segue to gay bashing, any more than is child molestation. But perhaps I misunderstand your point."

I had a point?!?!? Honestly, I hope I didn't offend; it wasn't my intention!

Lester Hunt said...

Anon, I agree with everything you are saying except for: "Is a horse not capable of pride?" My off-the-top-of-my-head response, taking your question non-rhetorically, is ... No, because pride requires two things a horse cannot have, namely, self-consciousness, in the sense of a conception of what sort of being one is, plus a conception of what sort of being one ought to be. Maybe it's part of the wonderful simplicity and innocence of animals, part indeed of what we value them for, that they don't deal with these complications -- ? Like I say, though, this is off the top of my head.

Anonymous said...

No offense taken, Craig. Sorry if I misunderstood your set of associations, but that's what associative thinking will lead to sometimes. I myself am often far from precise.

And Lester, you must be right -- even though I don't want you to be. When I use the word "pride" in referring to animals, I'm thinking, for example, of a hunting dog working a field, fully conscious of its master's presence and expectations and wagging its tail with exuberance when it returns with the quarry. Remember Lev's dog Laska, in Anna Karenina? Contrast that dog with one cringing with its tail between its legs after receiving a swift kick for disobeying. Might that behavior pass for humiliation or shame?

I have to admit that my childhood was corrupted by cartoons. And now that I think of it, Tolstoy's portrait of Laska is very cartoon-like, isn't it? But I still love that dog!

Thanks for recommending "Zoo." I'll be sure to see it when it comes out on DVD.

Lester Hunt said...

Well, I have to admit that animals can experience some reflexive (about oneself) emotions. As you suggest, they seem to be capable of self-confidence, at least in some sense of the word. I think this is compatible with what I say above, since it doesn't necessarily involve thinking of oneself as being of the right sort. Rather it has to do with expectations about what will or will not follow from one's action. I admit there is also something to the hunting dog sort of case as well. You often hear it said that work-animals "take pride in their work." My own impression is that in those cases what the animal is so happy about is that they are doing something for you. That is something they definitely can understand: relationships!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for correcting my crude animal psychology. I agree that a dog cannot grasp itself as a dog, much less as a superior birder. In the same way, a horse cannot grasp itself as a noble steed degraded by an inter-species sexual act. Lacking anything that can plausibly be called a self (a personal identity consciously lived with a wary eye on success and failure), non-human animals are incapable of self-esteem or its opposite; and I agree that it's silly to have suggested otherwise.

Nevertheless, I continue to wonder if sex with a horse (to stick with the example) can't be seen as ethically bad strictly with the horse in mind. Is it possible that a horse undergoes degradation when made to take part in non-virtuous human activities, even though the horse itself is incapable of grasping the degradation or experiencing the outrage? The horse is a creature that we rightly esteem for its natural simplicity and innocence, for its beauty and strength, and for its noble associations throughout human history. These, I suggest, are real attributes of the horse, not mere human projections. Isn't it inherently outrageous, therefore, to reduce a creature with such worthy qualities to the status of a giant sex toy? Does that not constitute an objective violation of some kind? And don't the people who perpetrate the violation earn a double dose of censure, one for self-degradation and the other for degrading the horse?

Well, this is the best I can come up with in defense of the notion of animal sex abuse. It's a fascinating topic.

SFG said...

I don't think the horse cares; it's probably wondering why the human thinks it's a mare, if anything, and is probably waiting for the next pail of oats.

The horse is a creature that we rightly esteem for its natural simplicity and innocence, for its beauty and strength, and for its noble associations throughout human history. These, I suggest, are real attributes of the horse, not mere human projections.
Horses are stronger and faster than people. They have historical associations with the upper classes, which probably accounts for the idea of 'nobility'. It's no more or less innocent than a ferret or rat, and certainly less innocent than the plague bacterium (which is totally innocent, having no mind). Yeah, I'd say these are projections. Horses care about food and sex, like any other animal. They don't have the complicated emotional needs attached to intercourse that say, human females, with their need to find a mate who will take care of them while they raise their young through years of helplessness, have.

Anonymous said...

"If riding a horse can stimulate a young girl's fancy, who knows what she might get up to in the stables? Human beings are extraordinary in nothing if not in their capacity to elaborate on the sexual instinct."

Well, first: as a woman who's ridden horses since girlhood, I take exception to this. The whole "horses 'stimulating' a young girl's fancy' is an old trope of the purely male kind of pornographic fantasy. It stems from a male viewing of a female riding a powerful animal(always at the canter, the 3 beat gait that results in a "sexy" rocking motion for the rider and causes the rider's behind to bump and slide a bit against the saddle)--and the male's assumption that it must feel sexy and frankly that to them it LOOKS sexy. On the contrary, I've not met one fellow rider who's told me they get "turned on" by riding. In fact, if you don't sit a particularly bouncy canter well--it hurts! Not fun.

And most people haven't seen a stallion covering a mare up close--I have. NO WAY would any sane human being want that. It's larger than any dildo I've ever seen anywhere, believe me. That's not out-there sex so much as it is self-mutilation/masochism.
And finally, a stallion is a very dangerous animal; they're aggressive and when excited and mating often bite(a serious bite)and the mare can be in danger of being kicked--a kick that easily could kill a person. So stupid, imho.