Calf and Other Loves

Wendy Doniger

  • Dearest Pet: On Bestiality by Midas Dekkers, translated by Paul Vincent
    Verso, 208 pp, £18.95, June 1994, ISBN 0 86091 462 3

Animal lovers who read this book – and no one else will, or should, read it – will not be able to put it down, but they will come away from it feeling vaguely uncomfortable. The subject itself would tend to make the book one long dirty joke; but the issues it raises are deadly serious, touching the tender spots of racism, sexism, sexual abuse and, indeed, the nature of sexual otherness.

First of all, Dearest Pet is full of fascinating information about the things that animals have meant to people. In this aspect the book is thoughtful and erudite, drawing skilfully on a vast array of historical and scientific literature. Dekkers was trained as a biologist but writes like a journalist, in a breezy style that is for the most part charming, occasionally annoying, and as the book progresses, troubling. The writing is so vivid and personal that it encourages us to imagine ourselves the perpetrators of acts that are usually described in more distanced or, at the other pole, more offensively obscene terms. And since some of these acts are at the same time bound to strike us as genuinely perverse, a subtle tension develops. This reaches its climax in the final chapter, when we discover that Dekkers, too, is troubled by bestiality; that he sees erotic implications in some of the most apparently innocent human-animal contacts; and that he regards people who prefer animals to people as morally flawed.

The basic paradox is framed in terms of natural science. Dekkers argues that every sexual act is bestial in the sense that it turns on otherness, that ‘every sexual encounter is a breaking of bounds, an intrusion into an alien realm, every sexual encounter retains a whiff of bestiality. What use is the other person if they are not different? You find true satisfaction only when you let yourself go.’ And he sees bestiality in places unexpectedly close to home, even when we talk about ‘the birds and the bees’ since bees and flowers represent ‘an extreme case of cross-species sexual intercourse. Here the plants obtain satisfaction with the help of animals. In your garden, on your balcony.’ But then he points out the elaborate measures nature has taken to prevent one species from fertilising another, measures which allow you to mate only with your own species. If a male toad ‘sees something moving, there are three possibilities: if it is larger than I am, I run away from it, if it is smaller, I eat it, and if it is the same size, I mate with it. If the creature with which it is mating does not protest, then it is probably the right species and the right sex.’ We all know men like that toad, and not every frog turns into a prince when you kiss him.

Even when humans transgress the boundaries of their species to find sexual partners, they still adhere to this basic principle that like attracts like. Those humans who prefer animals prefer ones that have human features:

Dogs, cats and rabbits are mirrors in which we love ourselves, and if the mirror is enough of a caricature – not ridiculous, but touching – it may even happen that we prefer the animal to the human being. The fact is that in some respects some animals are even more human than human beings themselves. No human being has such an entreating expression as a basset hound, no human being is as loyal as his dog.

Then, however, Dekkers reminds us of the counter-principle, that opposites attract, for human beings seldom commit bestiality with their closest relatives, the primates, generally preferring more distantly related predators, such as dogs, and cloven-hoofed animals, such as goats, cows and donkeys. In other words, there is a biological and emotional tension in sexual selection between the desire for the same (which would preserve the species but lead ultimately to incest and unhealthy inbreeding) and the desire for the different – which would introduce healthy new genes but ultimately endanger the integrity of the species.

From this scientific paradox, a moral paradox arises, or rather a moral switchback, that first lulls us into a permissive relativism and then slaps our hand as we reach out for the forbidden fruit. Dekkers argues, on the one hand, that bestiality is common and natural, and on the other, that it is perverse and immoral. First he tells us how to do it, in terms that would appal the moral majority, and then he says that it is nasty and literally inhuman, in terms that might have been borrowed from that majority. Dekkers begins by arguing that actual bestiality has been, and remains, a lot more common than most of us think. He explains how it took place in the past. In the cavalry, for instance, ‘with such an intimate bond between horse and rider’, and with women scarce and horses freely available, it naturally occurred to some officers that there was more than one useful way to mount a horse – or, one may suppose, for those who were ‘straight’, a mare. Frederick the Great’s judgment on a cavalryman who had abused a mare was more practical than moralistic: ‘The fellow is a swine and belongs in the infantry.’ This, however, merely displaced the problem, for though there were no horses in the infantry, ‘no goat was safe. If need be the armies took their own with them.’ There seems to be some sort of Dumézilian class distinction operating here: horses for the upper classes, goats for the masses. Dekkers goes on to tell us how bestiality occurs nowadays, noting that ‘Alfred Kinsey (a professor of veterinary studies!) asked twenty thousand Americans about their sexual experiences with animals. Not whether, but how often they had had them. That removed the worst scruples and prompted more than 5 per cent of those interviewed to confess.’ This part of the book is often hilarious, a more elegant and intellectually viable version of all those jokes about insatiable women and their gorillas, or farm boys who do things with their sheep/cows/chickens – a genre immortalised by Gene Wilder in Woody Allen’s Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex.

Dekkers does not mention the fact that, in computerised America, there is now a bestiality group on the Internet – used by many people as the loneliest of lonelyhearts clubs. Log on and you may choose among hundreds of articles with titles such as ‘A Girl and her Dog’ and ‘Horse Lover’. Many are explicitly presented as pornographic fantasies, but some claim to recount real experiences, and others offer practical advice on ways to enlarge your penis or ‘111 reasons why animals are better than humans’. Rhoda Lerman’s novel, Animal Acts, about a woman who runs off with a homicidal gorilla, is one of a number of recent books in the same genre. Clearly, this is not merely a rural or pre-industrial vice.

Easily available domestic and farm animals remain the most popular partners, however. The dog is man’s (more often woman’s) best friend in this sense too, ‘because it requites love. Sexual love does not have to be reciprocal, but it is nice when it is.’ Dekkers even tells you how to get a dog to mate with you: ‘With some adjustments it is not difficult to exchange the leg for a more appropriate part of the body and actual mating can ensue. Mostly, however, things do not reach this stage and the dog is most commonly used for cunnilingus. Dogs have an ideal tongue for the purpose, and can be taught it, like so many other tricks.’ Here, however, he sounds a note of caution, remarking that ‘we are not made for each other,’ and noting how embarrassing it can be for the woman (and, presumably, for the dog) when a dog gets stuck in a woman, as a result of the peculiar nature of a dog’s penis. Similarly, the stallion’s ‘60-centimetre penis is really too long for a human vagina.’ Despite these logistical problems, a human might want to do it with an animal, Dekkers suggests, out of

the desire to cuddle ... not to mention fate and the longing for happiness ... There are animals which by their very nature offer stimuli which for us are supernormal; the long lashes of a donkey, the divine hips of a mare, the long sinews of a cow, the soft fur of cats. The senses are aroused and search out the strongest stimuli. Mostly these are derived from a human being, but sometimes from an animal.

Finally, he tells us why an animal might want to do it with a human: imprinting at birth, which fools animals (such as Konrad Lorenz’s famous goslings) into believing they are humans and that therefore they should mate with humans. As all dog-owners know, dogs regard the human members of the household as other dogs. Such factors ‘drive human beings and animals into each other’s embrace. Sometimes to their satisfaction, sometimes to their disappointment.’ So far, so good: bestiality seems no more reprehensible or selfish or risky (or disappointing) than inter-human sexuality. But this last consideration – why an animal might want, or not want, to do it – leads us into a sensitive area: ‘“What does the animal think about it?” is consequently the most interesting question in the area of bestiality. Is it simply the victim of base human lust, or does it enjoy itself?’ Dogs apparently enjoy themselves: ‘It is a pleasant duty for a male dog to service the members of his household from time to time, certainly if he has no access to a bitch on heat.’ For dogs, at least, bestiality might still be a Good Thing. As for cows, ‘it is very difficult to know what they think about anything, as they show the same equanimity whatever happens.’ Moreover, when considering the possibility that a human might produce offspring with a chimpanzee (not, as we have seen, one of the preferred bestial partners), Dekkers turns to the perennial question with all mixed marriages: how to raise the children. Even here he seems to justify the enterprise:

No one seems to consider that the offspring might combine the best of the apes with the best of human beings, and swinging from the chandeliers of the Royal Library, reciting poetry, improving banana-growing, and at last combining a healthy mind and a healthy body, lecture us on what we always wanted to know: what our place in this world is. At last we would find out who we are. We ourselves are the missing link.

The implication is that incompatible couples of compatible species might stick together for the sake of the children.

Such a positive attitude to bestiality, presented with a sophistication reminiscent of Oscar Wilde or Maurice Chevalier, is implicitly supported by the book’s many illustrations, which are for the most part frankly pornographic. They are seldom mentioned in the text and often bear no perceptible relationship to it, but Dekkers does discuss pornography. Some animals (presumably those that look favourably on union with humans) seem to like it: ‘The chimpanzee Washoe liked sitting in a tree reading Playboy in the mornings. And Lucy used Playgirl when masturbating. Eugene Linden regards this as “the most impressive proof of the complex intelligence of chimpanzees. So be it.’ It seems to me to argue equally well for the low intelligence of humans. ‘Like every product of the imagination, pornography is also art, albeit art which needs to meet only one condition: that it should titillate the senses in some way or other. One reads pornography with one hand, literature mostly with two hands. Bestiality is not bound to one such genre.’ Some of Dekkers’s illustrations were surely designed to be read with one hand (or, as the case may be, one paw).

One of the pornographic subtexts is the author’s fascination with the size of male genitalia, a concern we have already seen in his caveats about mating with dogs and stallions. Dekkers even seems to suffer from swan-envy, as when he discusses Zeus’s transformation in order to rape Leda and remarks that although one is seldom jealous about the mating of birds, ‘the swan is an exception: it has a penis. A large, beautiful penis, as large and beautiful as the bird itself, amply equipped to satisfy every desire.’ Similarly, centaurs, the result of the interbreeding of Centaurus, the son of Apollo, and certain mares, ‘took their heads and arms from their father, their bodies and legs from their mother, from both sides a large horse’s penis – le meilleur des mondes possibles.’

Men, Dekkers claims, like to fantasise themselves into the role of ‘the stallion, the dog, the bull, the lusty monster with its outsized organ’ – which is why there are more stories about having sex with male animals than with female. He is certainly wrong about this, as any folklorist could have told him – think of all the Swan Maidens and Mermaids and Melusines and Undines and Japanese Fox Women. And it needs no feminist come from the grave to point out the chain of biased assumptions in his argument that

compared with reality, in which it is virtually always men who actually copulate with animals, in art the roles are completely reversed. Since most artists over the centuries have been men, the reason on for this role-reversal is obvious: because it corresponds with male fantasies. As always, a man identifies with the active party: the animal. Since women dream principally about themselves, the benefit to them is not nearly as great as for a man; they do not usually share his obsession with dimensions.

In these passages, Dekkers seems to be saying that Perhaps bestiality need not be such a Bad Thing; after all, it requires imagination. In its further defence, he argues that it is religious. The Greeks, the mythological Greeks, at least, indulged in bestiality. Dekkers sees the children of Leda and the swan (Zeus) as ‘at the same time the product of bestiality (man x animal) and of theogamy (god x man). Mating with such an animal is also mating with a god; human beings are, so to speak, marrying both beneath and above their station.’ He argues that in other religions, too, such as Hinduism, certain animals are believed to be gods, and mating with them amounts to bestial theogamy (or, perhaps, theogamous bestiality). But he fails to note that humans almost always take the form of animals before mating with theriomorphic Hindu gods, and his ideas are strongly redolent of the evolutionism of 19th-century mythologists: ‘For the transition from the old animal gods to the more modern gods in human form hybrids were very suitable. In this way people with animal heads emerged, but also animals with human heads.’

There is, however, an instance of religious bestiality far closer to home: ‘Christ was born of a virgin and a dove; Christianity too is founded on bestiality ... Jesus Christ, himself the Lamb of God, had absolutely no need to be ashamed of his origins, since the dove which had fathered him in Mary was a god as well as a dove.’ The rather literal-minded argument that Christ’s father was a bird reminded me of the old limerick:

Il y avait un jeune homme de Dijon
Qui n’avait pas de religion.
Il dit: ‘Pour moi,
Je déteste tous les trois:
Le Père, le Fils et le Pigeon.’

Dekkers also sees ‘bestial tendencies in the gathering assembled round the crib’ – presumably those inscrutable cows. He might have strengthened his case had he invoked in his chapter on humans raised by animals, the argument put forward by the folklorist Alan Dundes, who places the story of the birth of Jesus within the genre of the hero who is adopted by animals (Oedipus, Romulus and Remus, Mowgli, Tarzan etc).

Dekkers missed another candidate for bestiality in Christianity when so lightly passing over the reference to the lamb of God in the Revelation of St John: ‘Come hither, I will show thee the Bride, the Lamb’s wife’ (21.9). John Boswell, in Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, sees in this metaphor ‘a hint of bestiality’ which raises problems that ‘were rarely explored or even discussed’. Apparently, homosexuality, Boswell’s central concern, is more controversial than bestiality. The two practices – one regarded as the choice of sexual partners too different, the other not different enough – have often been linked by those who would censure either. For example, Dekkers remarks that Zeus took the form of an eagle to rape the child Ganymede, ‘to the great delight of the Greeks, who saw in this an acknowledgment of love between men, allowing women to be eliminated from public life’. One may ask why, if the Greeks had come out of the closet, Zeus had to take the form of a bird in order to carry off his young lover, but Dekkers does not pursue this line. Konrad Lorenz, one of the greatest animal-lovers of all time (though he and those goslings were apparently just good friends), is quoted as saying that ‘anyone who, disappointed and embittered by human failings, denies his love to mankind in order to transfer it to a dog or a cat, is definitely committing a grave sin, social sodomy so to speak, which is as disgusting as the sexual kind.’

Here we find ourselves on less frivolous turf. For the worldly, cynical tone of the argument that bestiality is just one more form of inclusive sexuality is undercut by the moralising tone of the argument against it. Here Dekkers seems to change his tune, to argue that bestiality is a Very Bad Thing, though this argument, too, is presented with wit:

Laws against bestiality are not necessary. Even without a court in the background it is bad enough to be found committing bestiality... No one who has gained notoriety as a chicken violator will get very far in life. Sexual intercourse with a pet, entrusted to your care, is regarded with almost as much disapproval as actual incest; the blackmailer who catches an American politician committing bestiality is in clover for the rest of his days. I am still waiting for the first man to tell Oprah Winfrey in vivid detail about the wonderful night he had with his goat.

In a more serious vein, Dekkers remarks that ‘People simply do not approve of others having sex with animals. That is what makes them human beings.’ And after noting that dogs often take the initiative in sexual contact with humans (who among us has not pretended, inanely, not to notice when a host’s dog makes a serious pass at his or her shin?), he turns through 180 degrees: ‘Force is often required to get the animal to do what the human being wants. Barbara Noske consequently prefers to speak not of bestiality but of interspecific rape. The analogies with the rape of a human being by another human being – force, fear, violence, trauma – are obvious.’ The spectre of the sexual abuse of children will certainly be evoked here, though not, apparently, in the author’s mind. When he suggests that a fertile union could probably be achieved with a certain sort of chimpanzee – the one he imagined swinging from the chandeliers of the Royal Library – he remarks: ‘What is technically possible may be ethically unacceptable.’ In which connection, he might have cited H.G. Wells’s terrifying depiction of the cruelty inherent in breeding humans with animals in The Island of Dr Moreau.

At this point, it may be difficult not to join Dekkers in condemning those who commit bestiality. Anyone who may have casually confessed to a preference for animals over people is here confronted with people who really do prefer animals to people, in terms which make them unacceptable. The homophobic subtext implicit in the condemnation of ‘social sodomy’ is only one aspect of a deeply disturbing body of racist texts which equate bestiality with certain forms of ‘aberrant’ human behaviour, primarily miscegenation. Thus François Leguat, a French traveller in 17th-century Java: ‘There is more similarity between an Ape and a black slave woman, who has been brought up without the least knowledge of God, than between an Ass and a Mare.’ Other, similar texts are cited, distant from us in time and space, but not distant enough:

Intercourse with blacks was obviously a worse kind of bestiality for a white than with a cow or a pig. Which does not mean that the whites, given the large number of people of mixed race in the former colonies, were inhibited by this. Indeed, foreign races exercise a particular sexual fascination... Indians, apes, satyrs, pygmies, blacks: it was really not clear where the human ended and the animal began; where high-flown love could turn into filthy bestiality.

There is a logical irony here, for who would not prefer animals to these people who prefer animals to people? Even Dekkers himself is not as condemnatory as one might wish: ‘Although it is a sick joke to ask what the definition of a virgin is (“a goat that runs faster than an Arab”), there is a grain of truth in it, to the extent that Islam is not as violently opposed to bestiality as is Christianity.’ Aside from the fact that it is a contradiction of Dekkers’s own assertion that ‘Christianity too is founded on bestiality,’ the statement about Islam is offensive nonsense.

Dekkers makes a particular example of Dian Fossey, who preferred her gorillas to Africans and was alleged to have been found in bed with a gorilla. Dekkers reserves judgment on this allegation, but he does see ‘hints of an erotic element’ when Fossey, in Gorillas in the Mist, calls one gorilla ‘exceptionally attractive’. As for humans, she was accused of kidnapping the son of one poacher and of tying Africans to a tree with barbed wire in order to beat them.

Dekkers presents strong evidence that, in our culture, the love of animals is often coupled with a distressing lack of love for humans. The large number of household pets that are more than ten years old indicates that ‘old animals are not abandoned, that human beings remain loyal to their pets until death do them part. This contrasts starkly with human loyalty to other humans: one in three marriages ends in divorce.’ To say nothing of parents in old people’s homes. Dekkers sees a historical pattern in this preference, connecting the present era of moral decline with the decline and fall of Egypt and Rome, when people treated their pets far better than their slaves. This preference

is a sign of decadence, a short-circuit in the network of affection, a cry for help from a society which has lost its way. All the more so because the same hands which stroke dogs and cats shamelessly scoop food from the trough of the food industry, just as in the past the same eyes which enjoyed a pet bird enjoyed the mass sacrifice of animals in the Circus Maximus in Rome. Love of animals is very nice, just as all love is nice, but it must not obscure love of human beings, otherwise our human society will disintegrate, creaking in its joints, to the accompaniment of heartrending meowing and barking.

We ourselves, it seems, are the beastly members of the bestial partnership.

Dekkers expands the definition of this nasty thing, bestiality, to include acts that many will have committed in seeming innocence:

If you include in bestiality only people who have sex exclusively with animals, then the percentage of course falls far below 1 per cent. On the other hand, if you drop the requirement that for sexual contact something has to be inserted somewhere and that something has to be fiddled with, and it is sufficient simply to cuddle, to derive a warm feeling from each other, to kiss perhaps at times, in brief to love, then bestiality is not a deviation but the general rule, not even something shameful, but the done thing.

Is loving a pet really erotic? Once we have agreed that hard-core bestiality is truly bestial, this soft-core kind is suddenly presented as more bestial than most of us would have thought.

This part of the book leaves the (pet-loving) reader feeling morally inadequate and a bit guilty about having pets at all – though not quite so guilty as the animal-rights man I once dined with, who explained to me that, since it is cruel to treat pets as city-dwellers inevitably must, the only kind thing to do is to sterilise all existing pets and kill all strays, so that in fifteen years there won’t be any more dogs and cats at all. According to this logic, the ultimate right of an animal is to be dead – or, like a character in a Greek tragedy, never to have been born. This will strike any animal-lover as counter-intuitive, and any reader of Midas Dekkers’s book as untrue. For, if nothing else, Dearest Pet tells us that one of the rights of an animal is to be loved – for better or for worse – by a human being.