Bestiality is Legal in Four States. Two Are Trying to Change That.

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Lawmakers in Hawaii and Wyoming have proposed measures to formally outlaw sexual abuse of animals, a crime that animal rights advocates say is often hidden in plain sight.

Lawmakers in Hawaii are considering a measure to formally outlaw the sexual abuse of animals, an issue the bill’s supporters say is surprisingly common but rarely publicized.

“People just don’t want to believe this is happening in our community,” Stephanie Kendrick, a public policy advocate for the Hawaiian Humane Society, said Tuesday at a hearing of the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee. “The problem is that it is happening in our community, and we need to be able to stop it.”

Only four states—Hawaii, New Mexico, West Virginia and Wyoming—do not have laws that formally prohibit sexual abuse of animals, traditionally known as bestiality. The act is often a punchline, but it’s also a documented precursor to other serious offenses, including “sexual abuse of children, as well as interpersonal violence and other forms of animal cruelty,” according to the proposed legislation.

“In addition, sexual abusers of animals have been shown to collect and share child pornography and express interest in other aberrant behavior involving sexual violence and fetish behaviors,” the bill continues. “Establishing the sexual assault of an animal as a separate crime will allow state law enforcement officers to better identify potentially dangerous and violent sexual predators in their communities.”

The legislation would classify the act as a class C felony if a person has sex with an animal, punishable with up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. Anyone who has sex with an animal in front of a minor, or forces a minor to participate, would be subject to a class B felony, subject to up to 10 years in jail and a fine of up to $25,000.

The measure would address gaps in the state’s animal cruelty laws, which require proof—typically bodily injury or death—to prosecute specific crimes. Sexual assault, particularly of larger animals and livestock, often doesn’t generate that type of evidence, the bill notes.

“Additionally, many acts of animal sexual abuse are discovered long after the incident occurs, limiting the available evidence,” it says.

The measure would also implement a host of other penalties for offenders, including mandated psychiatric or psychological treatment at his or her own expense, and surrendering any animals in their possession but continuing to pay for their care and treatment. 

Anyone convicted of sexual abuse of animal would also be prohibited from owning other animals, living in households with animals, and volunteering or working with animals for a minimum of five years “after the person’s release from imprisonment or court supervision.”

Several dozen individuals and organizations submitted written testimony in support of the bill, including the Honolulu prosecutor’s office, the Honolulu Police Department and the Hawaii Association of Animal Welfare Agencies. In its letter of support, the Humane Society of the United States noted that Hawaii’s lack of bestiality laws have made it a destination for people seeking to engage in the act.

“The internet facilitates this crime and, with no legal prohibition in Hawaii, allows it to flourish,” the testimony says. “Perpetrators use various websites to seek out one another where they often solicit and offer animals for sex. A popular bestiality website has thousands of users from all areas of the country and Hawaii is mentioned as a ‘legal’ destination for visitors looking to have sex with animals.”

Lawmakers in Hawaii have proposed similar bills at least two other times; both passed first reading but stalled in committee. The current measure was approved by the Senate in February, passed its second reading in the House and was approved this week by the judiciary committee with minor amendments. It goes next to the House for a final vote. 

A similar measure was signed into law Wednesday in Wyoming, codifying bestiality as a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. The law, which takes effect July 1, was sparked by a rash of horse abuse last summer in Sweetwater County. The abuser was caught on camera, but officials warned that it would still be hard to prosecute him due to the state’s lack of specific laws against bestiality.

“While shocking, this is actually a very difficult case,” Jason Mower, a spokesman for the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office, said in a statement at the time. Also, to satisfy the elements of a cruelty to animals charge, it’s our understanding that we would need to prove that the suspect’s actions in this case actually injured the animals.”

That case garnered headlines, but it’s far from the only recent example, Kendrick noted.

“There have been at least five arrests related to animal sexual abuse in at least four different states in just the first few weeks of this year,” she told the judiciary committee. “In every single case, the accused either has a history of child abuse or faces additional charges related to child abuse or child pornography. … Protecting the most vulnerable in our community should be the government’s top priority, and I know you all understand that.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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