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What Activists Are Doing to Fight the Rampant Growth of Bestiality

By all accounts, Kenneth Pinyan was an ordinary man living in rural Enumclaw, Washington. His neighbors described the recent divorcee with kids as a friendly face who could often be found playing guitar in his downtime.

What they didn’t know was that in the middle of the night, Pinyan would get in his car and drive a few miles to a 40-acre farm where he would meet two other men. Operating only by the glow of their flashlights, they would take turns coaxing a stallion with treats and stroking its dick. And, one by one, they would shed their clothes and bend over in front of the stallion, with one man guiding the horse’s nearly three-foot-long member into the other man’s rectum while the third filmed the encounter.

In an infamous internet video nicknamed “Mr. Hands,” you see and hear Pinyan as he takes in the stallion’s erection, which is the size of a man’s forearm. He whimpers and groans as the horse thrusts. After a few pumps, the act is over, and one of the men asks, quite urgently, “Did he cum? Did he cum?

They aren’t asking of Pinyan, but rather the horse.

The video ends there, but the story does not. Maybe Pinyan knew immediately that he was injured, maybe not. Either way, several hours passed before the pain got truly unbearable. One of his friends dropped him off at Enumclaw Community Hospital, only staying long enough to tell a staffer that Pinyan needed help. It was too late. Pinyan, 45, died in the early hours of July 2, 2005, after bleeding out through a perforated colon while waiting in the ER.

His death ignited a public debate about bestiality, which in Washington, and many other states, was technically legal at the time. An article in Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger kicked off national coverage of the incident, and the 2007 documentary Zoo dove deeper into Pinyan and the subculture around bestiality. Washington led the way by passing legislation banning the act in 2006, but it’s taken many years for other states to follow suit. Now that they have, though, a boom of anti-bestiality legislation has arrived in the last few years, with eight states either passing or enacting laws in 2017, and five more states passing bills in 2018. In total, 45 states now ban sex with animals. (The outliers: Wyoming, New Mexico, West Virginia, Kentucky and Hawaii, as well as Washington, D.C.)

As a whole, bestiality isn’t well understood or tracked in the U.S. Experts suggest that the number of bestiality acts has increased in the last decade-plus, fueled by online communities that normalize the act and provide clearer opportunities to engage in sex with an animal. Jenny Edwards, an independent researcher and longtime animal rescue expert, has reviewed arrests for bestiality in the last 40 years, totaling 456 incidents. She notes a dramatic rise in arrests after 2004, though she’s uncertain whether the acts are increasing or whether authorities are getting better at catching offenders.

“Before the internet, if you wanted animal or child porn, you had to do risky things to get your hands on it. You had to be willing to pay for it, and go to adult bookstores in seedy neighborhoods, which would often be monitored by cops,” Edwards says. “I don’t think the level of interest in sex with animals in the general public has changed, but people who are into it are able to connect easily and more frequently. They can talk about where to meet, and people understand that there are like-minded people out there.”

The King County farm that Pinyan frequented was one of a number of hubs known by online communities that facilitate bestiality, and others had been sneaking onto the same farm for the same purposes. And while Pinyan’s case involved him being penetrated by an animal, bestiality can cover a wide spectrum of acts, including a man penetrating the animal, using the animal for oral sex (either giving or receiving), and inserting objects into an animal for sexual gratification.

For animal rights advocates, the problem isn’t simply a dearth of anti-bestiality laws, but a huge number of loopholes in individual state laws and a lack of knowledge from law enforcement, says Leighann Lassiter, director of animal abuse for the Humane Society. Without conventional signs of abuse like starvation or visible injuries, authorities often don’t have much physical evidence. Case in point: James Michael Tait, the man who shot the video where Pinyan is penetrated, only received a $300 fine and probation for the criminal charge of “trespassing,” as authorities deemed the horse hadn’t been injured.

Some states require that a bestiality case involve an animal being injured or dying from the sexual assault, but may not have rules against sex with a dead animal. Some require penetration, but preclude oral sex. Some states exclude livestock, wildlife or invertebrates in the definition. Several states also include bestiality as a part of general “anti-sodomy” laws, historical holdovers from homophobic legislators who considered gayness and attraction to animals as the same notion of perversion. The Supreme Court has struck down such laws as being unconstitutional, which can also block prosecution of sex with animals, Lassiter notes. “Cases have been turned over on appeal because of unclear language in the law, and often times no charges are brought at all,” she says.

So who, exactly, is involved in the bestiality scene today? For one, dozens of sites are a Google search away, with names like BeastForum and BeastieGals featuring hundreds of streaming videos. Communication happens in chat rooms, forums like 8chan and in localized commerce sites like Craigslist.

Nobody has definitively tracked the demographics and outcomes of bestiality cases, so it remains difficult to say, but Edwards’ review of arrests over the last four decades, and of existing studies, did reveal some trends. A 2002 study by sexologist Hani Miletski, for one, reviewed 82 men and 11 women with a self-reported sexual interest in animals, and found that while respondents ranged in age from 19 to 78 and came from both rural and urban areas, they were primarily white men who were educated and gainfully employed, with about half reporting that they’d been in an intimate human relationship at some point in their lives. A 2016 survey of 150 men incarcerated for animal cruelty found similar results, with 68 percent of them white and 41 percent reporting that they’d had a human partner in the past.

The link between bestiality and other forms of human abuse, including sex crimes, isn’t definitive, but experts see sex with animals as a major source of concern. Dr. Gene Abel, a noted expert on sexual deviance and abuse, showed evidence in a 2009 report that bestiality is the single biggest factor in predicting pedophilia. Edwards’ own review of three separate studies on the habits of sex-crime offenders found that 36 percent to 55.5 percent of incarcerated respondents said they acted on a sexual attraction toward animals. Conversely, her review of bestiality offenders showed that 68 percent had committed sexual offenses toward adults or children at some point in their history. A 2016 study, meanwhile, found that 96 percent of 150 men convicted of animal cruelty-related offenses had been previously arrested for human sexual assault, fraud, weapons possession and other crimes involving interpersonal violence.

The motivations for bestiality, too, can run a gamut. A major distinction is made by zoophiles, who consider themselves as loving animals not just sexually, but emotionally, too. Miletski, for one, concluded after her research on zoophiles that they display genuine care for their animals and largely refuse sex with young or smaller animals that could be hurt, telling the Miami New Times that it’s “bullshit” to view zoophiles as a danger to children or women.

One of the most famous examples is that of Malcolm Brenner, a 67-year-old writer and zoophile who became notorious for his sexual relationship with Dolly, a bottlenose dolphin at a South Florida park dubbed Floridaland, in the 1970s. In the 2015 documentary Dolphin Lover, Brenner frames his encounters with Dolly as consensual — even instigated by the dolphin, in his view. He maintains that the repeat sexual acts weren’t abuse, and that she had free will.

“When I got into the water with her, she would approach me, unafraid. She would solicit attention. I never fed her, never gave her food or rewards. Her courtship, as it progressed, got more vigorous and intense. She would rub her genital slit against me, and if I tried to push her away, she would get very angry with me,” he recounts in the film. “One time, when she wanted to masturbate on my foot, and I wouldn’t let her, she threw herself on top of me and pushed me down to the bottom of the 12-foot pool. Those were the tactics she tried on me at first.”

That observation mirrors what Miletski found in her deep dive into the subject of bestiality, with a number of zoophiles maintaining that their sexual relationship with animals was a responsible, loving one. As one respondent told her:

“The dog was what made me realize that I really enjoyed giving him pleasure. Giving pleasure, not necessarily as a submissive act, but sometimes, but the giving of pleasure I believe is a true, one of the true marks of a zoophile, and that we enjoy making them happy. We enjoy giving them sexual pleasure, we enjoy giving them sensual pleasure through grooming and stuff, and we enjoy, you know, giving them the companionship that they would need if they were in like a pack situation or a herd situation … through being near them and being associated with them in that way, we can fill their needs, and being able to do that is really a great privilege and pleasure.”

This is a romantic view of bestiality, but in countless other incidents, the abusive element is much more obvious. People find animals for sex acts on sites like Craigslist or even from rescues and shelters, who usually have no idea that an adopter has sexual abuse in mind, and the acts themselves can hurt or kill the animal. This is much more likely when the animal is disproportionately smaller than its human abuser, as with rabbits or puppies, Edwards says.

No doubt zoophiles would argue that they’re different than more violent, uncaring abusers, but Hope Ferdowsian, a physician who is an expert on violence toward humans and animals, doesn’t believe bestiality can ever be ethical. The fact that animals are usually domesticated and rely on humans totally for food, care and companionship warps the power dynamic, she says. “There are pedophiles that make the claim that there is emotional reciprocity, too, and I flatly reject it,” she says. “The animals don’t understand what’s happening. They don’t understand the consequences of what can happen from the act. As a result, they cannot give consent. Animals having sex with each other is different, because they have behavioral cues that we don’t fully understand.”

Ferdowsian notes that animal and human sexual abuse are united by an intrinsic disrespect for the “bodily freedom” of the victim. Her research has shown that sexually abused animals often demonstrate signs of emotional damage, even if they are physically unharmed. Animals will cower, act fearful and even display “learned helplessness,” a sense of powerlessness that can make them depressed from the abuse, especially if it’s repeated, she says. These forms of post-traumatic disorders can linger if untreated, but the upside is that animals can recover if they’re treated properly, she adds. “As it turns out, when you restore freedom and compassion to an animal, and they form normal social bonds with other individuals, especially of their own species, they can bounce back. Like human kids, animals can be very resilient,” Ferdowsian says. “We see they can heal.”

Many outcomes for the animals, however, remain bleak. Edwards actually cared for the horse that killed Pinyan, a case that kick-started her own investigations into bestiality. While she had a lot of experience looking after horses, she and her team didn’t understand the kind of behavior and trauma that the horse had experienced while learning to mount people, incentivized by treats and human touch. “Looking back, I know we made several mistakes. We placed the horse in a new home too soon. I know now that animal survivors can be rehabilitated, but you have to teach them new things,” she says. “With that very first horse, we were eager to adopt it out to people who were willing, despite its background. But it went through several homes because of issues, and we lost track of him.”

She pauses.

“I think, frankly, he was probably euthanized.”