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Most people are repulsed by the idea of a person having sex with an animal. Our aversion seems to spring from a pre-cognitive level; it is intuitive.

It just seems wrong. More than wrong. Disgusting.

That’s why I applaud the Michigan Attorney General’s Office recent decision to charge a Michigan State University physicist with two counts of bestiality. Joseph Hattey allegedly sodomized his basset hound and advertised for other animals on Craigslist.

Under Michigan law, animal sexual assault is a felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison. I use the term “sexual assault” because this type of behavior toward animals involves pain and lack of consent.

There is an impressive body of empirical evidence, which links sexual abuse of animals to higher levels of aggression and pathology. In particular, animal sexual assault is linked to pedophilia. Multiple research studies have found an association between animal sexual assault and human sexual assault among both juvenile and adult sex offenders.

According to a 2008 study of nearly 45,000 adult males evaluated for sexual misconduct, those who engaged in animal sexual assault posed a higher risk of committing child sexual abuse. Other studies of adult prisoners, including serial killers, have found that animal sexual assault was predictive of later interpersonal violence as adults.

The case of Joseph Hattey attracted national attention because we consider this to be aberrant and unusual behavior. Yet, there are no reliable national statistics measuring the frequency of this crime. Jenny Edwards, an animal sexual assault expert, estimates that about 5 percent of the population engage in animal sexual assault. The victims include farm and companion animals, animals in entertainment, and those used in laboratory research. Sometimes, the acts occur at home and involve a family pet; in other cases, there are organized animal sexual assault events held in secret and isolated locations.

While Michigan has one of the strictest statutes criminalizing animal sexual assault, five states—Hawaii, Kentucky, New Mexico, West Virginia and Wyoming— are completely silent on the issue.  

Although there are felony provisions in all 50 states for some acts of animal cruelty, there are only 21 states in which animal sexual assault is listed as a felony. In some of those states, a felony is charged only when there have been previous convictions for that offense or there is a death or serious bodily injury to the animal.

In 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation added animal cruelty crime as a separate category to its national database, delineating four types of animal cruelty—neglect, intentional abuse, animal fighting, and animal sexual assault. As a result, we can anticipate more comprehensive data on animal crimes in the future. 

Proposed federal legislation, the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act, would offer federal protection against the type of animal cruelty that occurs in the making of “crush videos,” in which individuals—usually women—torture, mutilate and kill small animals by crushing them with their high heels in order to satisfy the twisted fetishes of viewers.

There are lessons we all can learn from the arrest of Joseph Hattey. All 50 states need to pass strict animal sexual assault laws, as Michigan has done. Following Michigan’s lead, law enforcement should aggressively investigate and prosecute cases of animal sexual assault.

Animal sexual assault is a serious offense, with documented links to other types of sexual aggression. Regrettably, it occurs more often than we would like to believe.

Mary Lou Randour, Ph.D., is a senior adviser for animal cruelty programs at the Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute.     

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