by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I ran Charles Zoo, the 2007 documentary (actually quasi-documentary, since many of the sequences in it are re-created, some of them with the actual participants, some with actors) about “zoophiles” — people who like having sex with animals — and in particular the incident in King County, Washington in 2005 in which an aerospace engineer at Boeing died as a result of a perforated colon from having anal-receptive sex with a horse. The film was quite controversial on its initial release — no surprise there — and sparked quite a lot of debate as to the morals and ethics of zoophilia and in particular whether animals can truly “consent” to a sexual experience and, if they can’t, is zoophilia inherently rape. (Lawrence Russell answered that question the way a zoophile might in the 1971 book Perversions, published by Greenleaf Press — the porn house Edward D. Wood, Jr. wrote for the last 15 years of his life: “While a dog cannot be taken to be a consenting adult, dogs usually have rather drastic methods of showing their dislike for something.”)
Zoo reminded me of those dreadfully earnest documentaries made in the late 1960’s about Gay people — the same shroud of secrecy surrounding the people and their actions, the same accounts of the shame they faced internally when they realized in what direction fate had steered their sexual desires, and the same uneasy attempt by the filmmakers to seem “responsible” and avoid direct titillation while at the same time taking advantage of the disquieting (to say the least) nature of their subject. Zoo is a powerful film but also a frustrating one; we get very little sense of what makes the zoophiles “run,” and in their efforts to downplay the obvious opportunities to shock and titillate the audience, director Robinson Devor and his co-writer, Charles Mudede, go in the other direction and make their movie surprisingly dull.
Zoo features marvelous cinematography by Sean Kirby — he takes full advantage of “magic hour” (twilight) to make the naturally awesome Pacific Northwest scenery positively glow — and an eloquent musical score by Paul Matthew Moore that seamlessly taps into the “Neptune — The Mystic” movement from Gustav Holst’s The Planets (at times it’s hard to tell where Holst leaves off and Moore begins, or vice versa). Devor seems genuinely fascinated by the zoophiles and anxious to get to understand them, but about all he can do in that regard is show us the utter normality of every other aspects of their lives — even the zoophile sex party he shows seems like any other weekend gathering of old friends, down to the host saying that sometimes he invites all those people and nothing (or at least nothing zoosexual) happens. To the extent to which we get to see the zoophiles themselves, they seem either loners with a neurotic distaste for the company of humans or people envious of animals for not having the “civilized” world to worry about.
The part of the film that most rang true for me was when one of the zoophiles said it was a relief to be in physical contact with an animal precisely because it allows you to shed the burden of humanness — to turn off the sentient faculties and essentially become an animal yourself for the duration. I remembered hearing that from the man I interviewed for Zenger’s about “horse-play,” which in his view meant people doing role-play as horses rather than having sex with them (and, indeed, many of the people taking on the human roles in these horse-play scenarios recoil with horror at the thought of actual sex with their horse-partners precisely because it carries the psychological taint of bestiality) — that the appeal of it (and of the more common dog-play) was precisely in transcending your human-ness and becoming just another animal, operating solely on sensation and instinct rather than letting the intellect get in the way.
Zoo was a hard movie to watch, in more ways than one; even as relatively un-prudish a person as me is pretty lost by the appeal of zoophilia (I don’t object to it on moral grounds; I just don’t see why anybody would want to do it — though maybe it would be more comprehensible if I’d grown up in a rural area and animals other than family pets had been a routine part of my life), and Devor is so matter-of-fact in his presentation of it that the movie holds your attention only by the sheer outrageousness of the subject matter and in spite of the director’s attempts to play it down.