All Creatures Great And Small

I got most of the way through Manohla Dargis' review of Zoo, the new, Extremely Serious look at bestiality - it's the tragic tale of a man who died after sexual congress with a horse - and I actually thought she was making fun of the idea that we should admit the poor, misunderstood zoophiliacs (or is it zoophiles?) into the charmed circle of modern tolerance. But not to worry - she doesn't much care for the self-serious movie, but she's down with its message:

After all, Bible-believers notwithstanding, if you eat and wear animals and agree that it’s O.K. to torture them in the name of science and beauty, what’s the big deal? Human beings subject animals penned in factory farms to far more grievous abuse than anything apparently done to the horses in “Zoo,” and on a daily basis human beings also subject themselves to greater risk. One zoophile’s fond memories of cooking up ham for his brethren indicate that theirs was not a PETA-approved animal love, true. But, as Mr. Devor makes clear, again and again, these were men who truly loved their animals in sickness and in health and, at least in the case of one unfortunate soul, till death finally did part them.

So, just to be clear, the only reasons that someone who isn't a Biblical literalist could think that bestiality is immoral are 1) that it causes physically pain to the animals involved and 2) that it's physically risky for the zoophile. Which implies that it's impossible, in the land of Dargis (and many of her readers, presumably), for an activity to be morally degrading unless it risks physical harm - and even then, humans "subject themselves to greater risk" when they're rock-climbing, say, or going through childbirth, so what's the big deal if sex with horses is a little bit risky, too? Danger is the spice of life, right?

This is one of those divides, I suppose, across which there's almost no point arguing, because the usual way to argue against the madness of Darghis-style "tolerance" is by reductio ad absurdum, and I don't think you can get that more absurd than waxing eloquent about zoophiles as "men who truly loved their animals." Not that they didn't love them, in some sense; I'm sure they did, just as Timothy Treadwell, the doomed protagonist in Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, loved his bears until they killed him, too. Indeed, I suspect that both Treadwell and the zoophiles fit the profile I sketched out here, of people seeking to transcend the difficulties of being human by going downward, toward the animal world we've half-left behind, rather than up toward God as most contemporary religions seek to do.

But Treadwell's inappropriate intimacies with animals involved a video camera and foolishly-close proximity, not a stallion's member - and Herzog, to his everlasting credit, didn't make a movie pretending that Treadwell' insanity was in the intolerant eye of the beholder. "While I find [the zoophiles] view problematic, I don't see the point of making an anti-horse-fucking film," David Edelstein writes in his review of Zoo. "By all means, let them make their case." But if you let them make their case without a frame of sanity around it - the kind of frame that Herzog's Grizzly Man provided, and that it sounds like Zoo does not - then you aren't just letting them explain what they did; you're endorsing it. And so are the critics who praise this movie.