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What is our proper relationship with animals? Do we own them? Should we eat them? The human/animal relationship is an ethically ambiguous one, and neither the law nor the democratic model of individual rights has yet managed to get it quite right. The notion that animals are mere property rings false: Even to the least pet-friendly among us, it's obvious that animals are capable of experience, suffering, and, in some circumstances, love. But can we ignore the fact that they are also furry, speechless beings that are routinely bred, bought, and sold en masse as a source of food, labor, or, if they're lucky, companionship?
Whatever our rapport with the animal kingdom ought to be, most people would agree that it shouldn't resemble an affair known as the Enumclaw Horse-Sex Incident, in which a Boeing engineer named Kenneth Pinyan died of a perforated colon after having sex with a stallion. Yet Zoo, a new semidocumentary film directed by Robinson Devor (The Woman Chaser, Police Beat) manages to take this tabloid-ready incident and turn it into a lyrical reflection on nature and longing. You walk into Zoo bracing yourself for "extreme" imagery (a graphic videotape of the real-life sex act circulated widely on the Internet after this story broke in 2005). But this footage of human/equine sex is only obliquely glimpsed at one moment, late in the film. Instead, Devor focuses on the lives of a collective of zoophilic men, including Pinyan, who found one another online in the early 2000s and began meeting at a farm in rural Washington state for communal weekends that were almost like family gatherings: "[O]ne Thanksgiving, we made a turkey anda ham," an interviewee recalls fondly. Then, presumably, they went out to the barn and filmed each other being mounted by horses. And I thought my family was weird.
In a culture where NAMBLA is a familiar (if reviled) household name and incest the salacious secret at the heart of countless Lifetime movies-of-the-week, bestiality remains one of the last truly unspeakable frontiers of aberration. Many of the subjects Devor interviewed refused to appear on camera, but at least two brave souls—a member of the zoophilia group who goes by the name Coyote, and Jenny Edwards, the horse rescuer who came to remove the stallion after Pinyan's death—agreed to show their faces. Other members of the zoophile group, including Pinyan himself (who was known to his fellow "zoos" only by his pseudonym, Mr. Hands) are played by actors in surprisingly noncheesy re-enactments (think Errol Morris, not America's Most Wanted). The men blend mixed drinks and watch old footage of the moon landing on TV; they seem like odd, lonely people, ill-suited for human interaction, perhaps, but far from evil or insane.
Devor, who cites Tarkovsky and Resnais among his influences, eschews the conventional talking-head interview in favor of an allusive, poetic visual style, layering voiceover with Paul Matthew Moore's moody (if occasionally intrusive) piano score and gorgeous 16 mm images of the landscape around Enumclaw: ripe blackberries on the vine, apple orchards at night, an empty stable. It would have been easy to focus on the eroticism of horses, who, let's face it, are beautiful creatures to look at even for the nonzoophilically inclined, but Devor shows the animals only sparingly. For him, what's most interesting is what the horses represent to the men who (gulp) love them: the wildness and purity of nature itself.
"It has no idea who Tolstoy is," observes one zoophile, trying to explain the appeal of "mammal-to-mammal" communication. "It's not going to ask you about the latest Madonna album. … [I]t has its own world, a very simple, plain world." This ode to the simplicity and innocence of animals will resonate with anyone who's ever confided in their dog. But the obvious rejoinder is, doesn't sexualizing the animal then violate and exploit that very innocence? Not according to the zoos, one of whom characterizes horses as "intelligent beings" that are "happy to participate. "They're hittin' on you," declares another, in a shifting of responsibility that can't help but recall the defensive protestations of some pedophiles. Then again, as Rush Limbaugh notes in a strangely decontextualized excerpt from his radio show, it would be hard to construe the stallion in the Enumclaw video as anything but consenting. The question of whether animals can consent to sex with humans is a tricky one; it might be more accurate to say that, given their instinctual drives, they can't not consent, which may represent just as much of a deprivation of liberty. But what does liberty mean for a horse?
Because bestiality wasn't illegal in Washington state at the time of the incident, no charges were filed against the surviving members of the Enumclaw group. But since (and because of) Pinyan's death, new laws have been enacted making sex with animals a felony in the state. Zoo is hardly a brief on behalf of the practice, but it does treat those who engage in it as something more than just contemptible freaks. Jenny Edwards, the animal worker who rescued Strut the stallion from his sexual bondage (only to have him gelded that very night) ends the movie with a reflection on zoophilia that viewers of Zoo may come to share: "I don't know how I feel about that, but I'm right on the edge of being able to understand it."