Zoophilia is broadly defined as the affinity or sexual attraction by a human to a non-human animal. See Wikipedia, Zoophilia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoophilia (describing the emotional and sexual attraction of humans to animals) (as of June 24, 2008, 15:48 GMT). More recently, the term “zoosexuality” has been used to more accurately reflect the full spectrum of a “human/animal orientation.” Id. The term “bestiality” is often used interchangeably with “zoophilia,” though some suggest that this is inaccurate. Id. In the legal system, the term bestiality is most often used to describe human-animal sexual activity without specifying the requisite sexual act. This is in addition to use of the term “sodomy,” which not only covers sexual acts with animals but also certain human sexual acts. (For more on the history and psychology of zoophilia, please see the above Wikipedia link).
The legality of zoophilia (otherwise termed bestiality) is not controlled from the federal level. The only relevant federal law is the sodomy law under the military code. This law provides that “[a]ny person subject to this chapter who engages in unnatural carnal copulation with . . . an animal is guilty of sodomy.” 10 U.S.C.A. § 925, 10 USCA § 925. The penalty is derived through court martial. However, as one might expect, the statute applies only to military personnel.
It should be noted that it is not unusual for this type of societal issue to be controlled at the state level. Due to the interaction of federal power and state rights, most laws that deal with the health, safety, and welfare of citizens occur at the state or even local levels. This is especially true of criminal laws. Bestiality statutes occur as part of the criminal code; thus, each state determines the terms and penalty for the activity.
That being said, approximately 30 states have enacted laws that prohibit sexual contact between humans and animals. The best way to view the actual text of these laws on our website is to go to the Map of State Animal Cruelty Laws. The bestiality statutes have been added to the compilation of these laws. For ease of seeing which states have bestiality laws, these states have been listed below along with a designation for whether it is a felony (F) or a misdemeanor (M):
(MT – MT ST 45-5-505 held unconstitutional by Gryczan v. State, 942 P.2d 112, 113+, 283 Mont. 433, 433+ (Mont. Jul 02, 1997) (NO. 96-202); NC – NC ST 14-177 – held unconstitutional by State v. Whiteley, 616 S.E.2d 576, 577+, 172 N.C.App. 772, 772+ (N.C.App. Aug 16, 2005) (NO. COA04-636)).
(Note also that some states, such as Alabama (AR ST § 13A-12-200.1), Florida (FL ST 847.001), and Tennessee (TN ST § 7-51-1401), have provisions dealing with bestiality under their anti-obscenity and/or adult businesses sections.)
While many of these laws date to the last century or earlier, there have been recent additions of bestiality laws, particularly as part of amended cruelty code. Notably, those states without specific bestiality laws do usually include some reference to bestiality in their child protection laws. These laws, while not included on the website, concern the exhibition of sexually explicit materials containing acts of bestiality to children, or the inclusion of children in the making of such materials.
The slight majority of these states make bestiality a felony. Of the 30 some states, 16 make such acts a felony. What is interesting about the felony designation is that many of these states dictate a lengthy penalty for violation of the law. For instance, Georgia law includes a prison term of one to five years. Idaho makes it a felony with a sentence of not less than five years. Massachusetts has a term of imprisonment not exceeding twenty years or less than seven.
In 2008, the Michigan Court of Appeals held that an animal cannot be a "victim" for the purposes of sex offender registry. People v. Haynes , --- N.W.2d ----, 2008 WL 4365966 (Mich.App.). In this case, the defendant pleaded no contest to committing an “abominable and detestable crime against nature” with a sheep under MCL 750.158. In addition to sentencing consistent with being habitual offender, the trial court found that defendant's actions evidenced sexual perversion, so the court ordered defendant to register under the Sex Offenders Registration Act (“SORA”). Defendant only appealed the propriety of the trial court's order requiring him to register as a sex offender. The Court of Appeals reversed the order, holding that while sheep was the “victim” of the crime, registration was only required if the victim was a human being less than 18 years old. The court found that MCL 750.158 encompasses two categories of crimes: “abominable and detestable crime[s] against nature” with a human being, and “abominable and detestable crime[s] against nature” with an animal. SORA defines “listed offense” as including a violation of section 158 if a victim is an individual less than 18 years of age. Relying on the plain and ordinary meaning of "victim," the court concluded that an animal was not intended to be considered a victim under the statute.
Recently enacted or amended laws focus on the necessity of psychological counseling for perpetrators of bestiality (See Arizona and Washington for instance). Other recent laws impliedly focus on the lack of consent in the activity, terming the action a “sexual assault.” Older laws term the activity a “crime against nature” or “unnatural act with an animal.” One scholarly legal article included on our website addresses briefly the legal status of bestiality statutes and the historical bases for these laws. See, 11 Animal L. 131 (2005). Another law review article (not included on our site) suggests that these laws may not be directed at the lack of consent on the part of the animal, but rather society’s attitude toward sex itself. Pets or Meat? by Mary Ann Case, 80 Chi.-Kent L. Rev. 1129 (2005). The author raises the difficult issue of how to differentiate the act of bestiality from other “tricks” pets are forced to perform, sometimes through coercion. Finally, famed animal rights philosopher Peter Singer wrote a controversial essay entitled, “Heavy Petting,” in which he suggests that “mutually satisfying activities” could occur without involving cruelty to the animal. (See http://www.nerve.com/Opinions/Singer/heavyPetting/main.asp). Singer insinuates that our discomfort with zoophilia stems more from our view as separate and morally superior from the rest of the animal world rather than the direct harm to the animal itself.
Regardless of the philosophical platform from which one views the activity, bestiality is criminally sanctioned in many states. Even if a state does not specifically proscribe the activity, it may be covered under other aspects of a state’s sex crimes code or even the anti-animal cruelty law. As with any other legal question, it is imperative to contact a licensed attorney in your state to answer any specific questions about the law.