There aren't a lot of experts on bestiality law in the U.S, but the few there are tend to agree that it's a solitary crime.
Illustration by Julia Gfrörer
On July 2, 2005, Kenneth Pinyan was dropped off by an unidentified man in the emergency room of the sleepy Enumclaw Community Hospital, about 25 miles outside of Tacoma, Washington. By the time doctors reached him, he had died of a perforated colon. When police began to investigate the death, following the trail of events that had led Pinyan to the hospital that summer day, they found themselves balls deep in a ring of bestiality the likes of which Washington State had never seen.
As it turned out, Pinyan had sustained his injury while letting a horse have sex with his ass on a farm outside of Enumclaw. After tracking down the man who dropped Pinyan at the hospital, authorities found and searched the farm where he'd sustained his injury and discovered a videotape of the act, along with more than a hundred others depicting men having sex with or receiving sex from various farm animals (aside from horses, there were violations of goats, sheep, and chickens), taken by a man named James Michael Tait, who lived nearby. Confronted with the sheer scale and duration of the videos, police and reporters alike swallowed their discomfort and dived into the world of zoophile chatrooms and websites. After a little digging, it became clear that the Enumclaw farm was known in the community as a major bestiality brothel.
But when police tried to charge Tait with a crime, they realized that Washington didn't have any laws on the books prohibiting the ungodly union between man and beast. The best they could tag him with was trespassing, resulting in a year of probation, a $300 fine, and a day of community service.
This is a tired story in American law. Over the past two decades, numerous high-profile bestiality cases have popped up from state to state, and prosecutors have often found it hard to prosecute them. It's such an obscure crime, and a case—like Enumclaw farm—making it into the national spotlight is so rare that we have largely forgotten to legislate the matter. And the offenses that were in place were stricken from the books in the 1970s, when "Crimes against Nature" laws that had lumped bestiality in with consensual sexual acts between adults once labeled as illegal—like sodomy—were deleted wholesale.
Many legislators assume that anti-animal cruelty laws can be used to prosecute bestiality, but that's often not the case. Most of it flies under the radar, occurring in private homes, and involves no prosecutable harm to the animals involved. The cases involving sex with animals that are prosecuted usually occur quietly under other charges, like trespassing or tampering with private property. Then an odd case catches a bit of media attention and prompts a law.
The cases that spark laws usually tend to the sad rather than the absurd, like the case of a pit bull pup in North Carolina that died from internal injuries sustained from sex with a teenage boy, which prompted a local advocate to launch a nationwide campaign. That scenario has played out in a fair number of states from 1999 until now. In Washington, a law was passed outlawing bestiality in all forms less than six months after Pinyan's death. (If you're keeping track—as of the last count, in 2013, by the Michigan State University College of Law—Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, DC, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming still lacked anti-bestiality laws.)
But the Washington case is a little more complex. The scope of the operation (a brothel as opposed to a farmer and his goat) and the men involved (Pinyan was a seemingly well-adjusted and well-liked Boeing engineer) don't match up to the common patterns and narratives of bestiality. To complicate matters further, five years after the 2005 incident, a second animal brothel was discovered in Washington. That one, in Whatcom County on the Canadian border, was based in Exitpoint Stallions Limited, a horse breeding company operated by onetime cocaine smuggler Douglas Spink. Police arrested Spink alongside a Welsh tourist, Stephen Clarke, when they found videos of the latter sexually abusing three dogs. Also found were several mice with their tails cut off, covered in Vaseline, with strings tied around them. Let that image sink in for a minute. Evidence later emerged that showed Spink had been running a full-on brothel using his dogs, horses, and mice and was producing hard-copy bestiality porn, either as souvenirs or to get patrons warmed up, presumably.
There isn't a whole lot of experts on bestiality law in the United States, but the few there are tend to agree that it's mainly a solitary crime. "Most of these cases involve individuals," says Scott Heiser of the Animal Legal Defense Fund's Criminal Justice Program. "Especially juveniles who like to put these photos up on Facebook and the Internet... they just think no one will care." Dr. Randall Lockwood, senior vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' Forensic Sciences and Anti-Cruelty Projects, adds that most often bestiality comes bundled with some other offense, like overt cruelty. "It's not a disorder of its own," he points out, referring to bestiality's status in the DSM-5, which classifies zoophilia as an unspecified sexual preference, usually a component of some larger disorder.
The takeaway being that, as Lockwood puts it, "these aren't otherwise upstanding and loving spouses" who are going out there getting their rocks off with animals. And it's certainly not a social crime—Heiser and Lockwood both point out that, aside from the two Washington cases, every other rumored animal brothel they'd ever heard of never materialized, or turned out to be a hoax or urban legend. Sure, the occasional human brothel will pop up pimping out a few animals on the side, but that's rare and not quite the same. "I don't like to discount people who suspect things," says Heiser, "but since 2005 there have been no detected brothels that I know of other than Spink's." In other words, it's not a community traditionally known for meeting up to aid and abet each other in a shared interest of fucking farm animals on film.
The discreet nature of bestiality can make the laws passed in the wake of high-profile cases feel a little futile. If most people who are into sexing up animals do it with their own pets or livestock, in private, without committing animal cruelty outright, then it's almost impossible to detect the crime. And even if individuals are caught, the evidence disappears quickly, says Lockwood. Only in the past four or five years have vets learned, en masse, how to use rape kits on animals. Even when detected, judges tend to be lenient and prosecutors pursue cases under other parallel violations of the law that carry a lower burden of proof. And, some point out, if there's no harm (read: legal cruelty) to the animals, then there's no reason to prosecute.
Lockwood defends the value of such laws and the prosecution of bestiality by pointing out that it's increasingly connected in academic literature to minds that are disturbed in more troubling ways. Just under five percent of child sex offenders, he says, openly admit to having had relations with animals, and 30 to 40 percent appear to have engaged in bestiality when questioned on a polygraph. He also points out that a common zoophile defense—that animals enjoy or do not mind sexual aggression—is eerily reminiscent of pedophilic rhetoric.
In contrast to the prevailing narrative, though, Pinyan was by most accounts an otherwise normal man. After his death, a documentary crew that started out with a critical stance on the issue produced Zoo, a 2007 film on the Washington horse sex ring that took a slightly positive approach to zoophiles and their culture. Pinyan raises serious questions about the selection bias involved in the common stories of bestiality. Given that most literature comes from those who get caught, often as a result of their more overtly devious actions, it's hard to say anything comprehensive and certain about the zoophile population at large.
And we are unlikely to learn anything more about it in the near future. For now, what we know is that Washington is just weird. It often records the highest bestiality rate in the US, the oddity of the two aforementioned crimes aside. Granted, that's just what gets caught—Washington may just be a hyper-vigilant, animal-loving state. But that bares the type of investigation that no one wants to do, as it would involve trolling around bestiality chat rooms, and whether inherently pathological or not the act still feels just too icky to touch. So rather than some groundbreaking profile of the psychology of zoophiles, the next piece of news you're likely to hear about bestiality is the inevitable passage of Alabama's long-delayed anti-bestiality law, which should make it through the house later this year.