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April 27 — A new movement in the debate on animal abuse policing and prosecution has turned its attention to redefining bestiality in state codes around the country.
It is a topic shrouded in taboo, but links between bestiality and sex crimes against humans—children in particular—are bringing the debate out in the open.
Bestiality “is the single greatest predictor of people who will molest children,” Detective Jeremy Hoffman, of the Fairfax County, Va., Sheriff's Office, told Bloomberg BNA.
Hoffman routinely testifies in front of state legislative committees deciding on bestiality bills.
Bloomberg BNA will explore the changing landscape of animal cruelty in criminal law in a four-part series.
Although states have been enacting these bills over the past 10 years, there is a push toward enforcement in states that have the laws and establishing laws where there are none because of more information on the link between animal sexual abuse and human sexual abuse, according to Jenny Edwards, a criminologist and independent researcher who has been studying animal sexual abuse for 10 years.
She explained that often means animal control officers handle offenses, and many incidents of bestiality are not investigated by sexual assault detectives.
The issue recently took on more significance when the FBI announced an initiative to start tracking animal cruelty crimes in 2016, which would include bestiality, Lindsay Hamrick, New Hampshire state director for the Humane Society of the U.S., told Bloomberg BNA. That initiative sprang from law enforcement's recognized link between animal abuse and crimes against people (98 CrL 229, 12/9/15).
But how states define the crime can impact the way the statutes are enforced, who responds to and investigates those crimes, whether defendants should register as sex offenders, and whether the states must report offenses to the FBI, according to those working to pass bestiality laws in all states and U.S. territories.
The debate is further complicated by warring priorities of law enforcement and prosecutors, who are focused on preventing sexual crimes against humans that can escalate from animal sexual abuse and pornography, with the agricultural industry's concerns about overreaching on animal rights in a way that could threaten farmers.
Those concerns will be explored in more detail in a future installment of this series.
Based on research conducted by Bloomberg BNA, bestiality is legal in nine states, the District of Columbia and under the U.S. military law. Yet penalties in those states that do criminalize bestiality vary.
Committing bestiality can potentially land an offender a felony charge in almost half of the states, though some of those only charge a felony for repeat offenses, Bloomberg BNA research reveals.
The inconsistent landscape of bestiality laws in America evolved over the course of 40-50 years, said Dr. Martha Smith-Blackmore, a forensic veterinarian who works with law enforcement on bestiality investigations nationwide.
The gap in most states' criminal codes arose in the 1970s and 1980s, Smith-Blackmore told Bloomberg BNA.
States began striking down old “crimes against nature” laws that criminalized sodomy between consenting adults, she explained. However, those same statutes often covered sexual interactions between humans and animals, she said.
This legal gap existed in just under half the states until a few high-profile cases in the U.S. made international headlines in the mid-2000s—namely, a 2005 case in Washington state where a man willingly sodomized by a horse died from the resulting injuries, Edwards said.
In the decade since, many states passed bestiality statutes, Edwards said. However, she clarified that categorization and enforcement of those statutes vary wildly across the nation.
Edwards said when she began her independent research of this crime, she found that most people arrested for bestiality had records involving child sex crimes or child pornography. That correlation is one that law enforcement and prosecutors are starting to take more seriously, she said.
Smith-Blackmore said her experience supported that connection. The single most prevalent lesson she said she learned in her practice is that animal sexual abuse is always tied to other forms of abuse.
“Where there are animals in trouble, there are people in trouble as well,” Smith-Blackmore said.
Hoffman said the connections he has seen between bestiality and sex crimes against humans means he prefers statutes that classify bestiality as a sex crime.
Before investigating bestiality crimes, Hoffman said he served as a child exploitation detective in 2011. While in that position, he said he started noticing a trend that the vast majority of child pornography cases also revealed bestiality porn as well.
As he investigated websites dedicated to child pornography, Hoffman said he routinely came across links to bestiality websites or advertisements selling animals for sexual purposes. So as an experiment, he started proactively investigating animal sexual abuse, which he said led to a lot of early success in revealing child sexual abuse.
What Hoffman said he knows is that plenty of overlap exists regarding motivation behind perpetrating sex crimes on animals and people. Bestiality usually arises out of a need for power and control—the same factors Hoffman said drive sex crimes.
People who assault animals often give the same justifications for their conduct that child predators and rapists use, Hoffman said.
Now, Edwards and Hoffman work together in training law enforcement nationwide in how to investigate bestiality as a crime, rather than as a byproduct of investigating sex crimes against humans.
Edwards developed the program based on her studies of the crime and its psychology, which she said is the only current information any researcher has gathered. Part of the problem is a gap in academic research, she said.
Most of the studies were conducted in the 1940s and 1950s, she said. The few done in the ‘90s and ‘00s involved either very niche populations or very small groups of offenders that studied less than 30 individuals; those aren't applicable to larger groups, she added.
“The reality is, we've been relying on the wrong statistics,” Edwards said.
Edwards explained that most people assume bestiality is a rare crime, so interest in research and enforcement has been historically low.
“The trend is going toward education, but I'm a one-woman show,” Edwards said.
The U.S. Humane Society took up the issue of codifying bestiality laws within the past three to four years after a number of prosecutions failed because the crime was not illegal, Hamrick said.
Many of those cases didn't result in physical injury to the animals involved, meaning prosecutors could not successfully bring charges under general animal cruelty statutes, Hamrick explained.
Smith-Blackmore supported that point, saying without laws outlawing sexual contact between an animal and a person, a legal loophole allows people who sexually assault animals to continue engaging in that behavior if the animal isn't physically injured. As in human sexual assault, she explained that physical injuries do not always occur, or if they do, they heal over time.
But animals that have been sexually abused often display the same behavioral side-effects from sexual assault that humans do, including unusual meekness and changes in appetite, she said.
“There are no laws recognizing emotional harm for animals,” Smith-Blackmore said.
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