Trey the golden retriever edges his snout closer to my steak and chips. The table is the right height for him to rest his head upon, and he sticks his tongue out for any scraps that may fall from my plate. His owner, Brian, a 42-year-old engineer, ticks him off: "You're not getting any" 'Trey cocks his head in disappointment. "It will only end up in the car and you'll lose the benefit of it nutritionally," adds Brian, who bought Trey four years ago from an animal shelter. He tells the dog that the leftovers will be put in a hag and fed to him at home. Trey whinnies and shakes his bead.
We are having lunch in a pub garden. Above, grey clouds threaten rain, but it is better for us to be outside. Brian is explaining to me that he is in love with his dog. Anyone who finds this idea deeply offensive is advised not to read on. "I would lay down my life for him without thinking," says Brian. "He's always there for me. We sleep in the same bed, he occupies the pillow area normally, and wakes me in the morning with a kiss. The sex," he adds, "is great." Brian defines himself as both a bestialist - someone Who has sex with animals - and a zoophile - someone who has loving relationships with them. He has had several "relationships" with dogs in the past three decades: male and female, other peoples and his own. He first masturbated a dog a friends when he was 12, and he said that he gained pleasure from giving the animal pleasure. At school, in a northern suburb, he was not attracted to girls, nor has he been since.
Brian kept his sexual preference a secret until his mid-thirties, when he told his father and brother about it. - thet were shocked and now do not mention the subject. "I realised that it was something I had no control over. It wasn't a conscious decision, but it wasn't an obsession. I had other things in my life to he getting on with." These included motorcycling and flying - which gave him regular contact with other people.
His work often required him to travel, so he did not think it practical or fair to keep a dog of. his own. Instead, he had relationships with dogs owned by friends or relations, carefully choosing times and places, indoors and out, when he could he unobserved. One such dog was a collie called Glenn, who belonged to a cousin living nearby. Brian says that he was in love with Glenn for seven years. He visited him once or twice a week and looked after him at weekends or when his cousin was on holiday.
When Glenn and his owners moved out of town, Brian became depressed and bought a puppy. But the physical side of that relationship was not a success. "He was very submissive, never showed any mounting behaviour towards me..." (Brian's preferred modus operandi, in case you were wondering, is to be penetrated by his canine partner, and to perform oral sex on him.) Eventually, Brian began to feel that he was betraying Glenn, and so he had his dog castrated and sold him as a pet.
Brian searches in his wallet and brings out a photograph of a collie lying on a lawn. This is Glenn. The picture is worn and covered in Sellotape. Stuck to the back is a lock of black fur.
Glenn died suddenly one morning of a heart attack before Brian could say goodbye to him. Glenn's owner knew how strongly Brian felt about Glenn - though not about how he expressed his feelings - and had said that if the dog ever had to be put to sleep, Brian could be there to help the animal die. "They said that when the time came..." Brian fails to end this sentence and covers his face with his hands. I reach out my arm to him, but he turns away, falls to his knees and embraces Trey His mouth buried in the dog's fur, he tries to hold in his tears.
BESTIALITY - or zoophilia, as its apologists prefer to call it - has never been more acceptable. In recent months there have been glossy photoshoots involving models in suggestive poses with animals in such fashionable magazines as i-D,Arena and Bizarre. A recent television commercial for ice-cream appears to feature sexual interaction between a man and a dog and between a woman and a horse. Brian O'Doherty's Booker-short-listed novel, The Deposition of Father McGreevy, has several sex scenes between a man and a sheep - one of which was short-listed for last week's Literary Review "Bad Sex" Prize (which was awarded after this article went to press). And last year Channel 4 screened a documentary on the subject, Animal Passions, on which an American interviewee, Mark Matthews, married his pony, Pixel, in a special ceremony.
This last cultural event prompted Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginnis to file an early day motion in the Commons calling on the Government to "take decisive action to ensure that such depraved and corrupting programmes are not screened on British television in future."
But the fact is that, for most people, bestiality is far from being the horrifying taboo that it once was. Recent decades have seen such "perversions" as S&M drift into the mainstream, and some people believe that bestiality should be next. In Germany and the Netherlands, and in 28 states in the USA, sexual relationships with animals are legal, while in Hungary magazines dedicated to animal sex are sold openly in garages and bookshops. In Britain, on the other hand, it is an offence punishable by life imprisonment. But the Home Office report, Setting the Boundaries, published last year as part of a general review of sex offences, recommends reducing this to five years. The report, which aims to come up with a set of proposals that are "fair, just and fit for the 21st century", argues that sex with animals offends the dignity of the animals concerned, and cites a link between the abuse of animals and the abuse of children. But it is not entirely unsympathetic to those who engage in interspecific sex, attributing their behaviour largely to "loneliness and propinquity"; and it invites the public to send in their own suggestions before March 2001, after which the Government will prepare to introduce revised legislation.
THERE IS NO reliable research as to how many zoophiles there are. The most detailed analysis is still that in Alfred Kinsey's reports on sexual behaviour in the 1950s. Dr Kinsey asked 20,000 Americans about their sexual preferences. Eight per cent of men and 3 per cent of women admitted to having had sexual relations with animals; in rural areas, the proportion among men grew to 50 per cent (although these were mostly teenagers with raging hormones and little access to girls, who stopped when they reached their twenties). Today, however, new research is finally being done on the subject, partly because - thanks to the Internet - new information is becoming available. The proliferation of websites and newsgroups devoted to every possible subject has encouraged zoophiles from around the world to "come out" and discuss their sexual identity.
This in turn is providing academics with material and leads for serious research. Andrea Beetz, for example, a PhD student at the University of Erlangen, Germany, is undertaking an explorative study of zoophiles to discover if there are any patterns in their development and background. This includes tests to see if they are introvert or extrovert or display signs of aggression. She is compiling the results from around 150 interviews and questionnaires given to zoophiles worldwide. Clearly, some of these may be fantastists; but Beetz says that she is being rigorous in cross-checking all the evidence she is given, as well as meeting her subjects in person.
"I want to see whether 'zoos' are different from the average person. The prejudices that most people have are that they are very violent and dangerous." Psychiatric studies have previously classified zoophiles with sex offenders such as the serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, who had sexual experiences with animals in his childhood. Beetz wondered if this was true: "I set out to see if they were strange - or different because they did not have access to human partners." So far, her interviewees have displayed levels of average to above average IQ. All but four are men (although this may reflect the fact that women are less likely to use the Internet - or simply less likely to "come out"). Their tastes cover most species of animal - fantasies involving dolphins and big cats are common - but their relationships are most commonly with horses and dogs, whose sexual organs are relatively compatible with humans' in terms of size and whose domestication makes them both available and relatively likely to reciprocate sexual advances.
Many of Beetz's subjects have university degrees or work in information technology; some own companies or work in libraries or schools. A few have jobs which allow them to be close to animals - in zoos, for example. Many contribute to animal welfare groups. "They do not always have sex with the animals," Ms Beetz adds. They just like to care about them."
This leads to the contentious issue of whether zoophilia is about "love" - or just about sex. "Zoophilia is the phenomenon of humans having an emotional and/or sexual attraction to an animal," says Dr Hani Miletski, a Washington DC sex therapist who wrote her doctoral thesis on the subject and is now finishing a book about it. According to Dr Miletski, zoophiles do not necessarily have to live with or have sex with an animal. They love animals and often care for them as others would a child or a partner. Sex is an option, but not the sine qua non of zoophilia.
Most of the zoophiles I have spoken to - in Britain, the USA and Europe - seem to share this view. "The best part is when she falls asleep in your lap or licks your face," says EdJames, a New York zoophile, of his dog. "I have sexual contact with my dog because it makes her happy, and it makes me happy to make her happy." But Martin Daily of the RSPCA scorns such thinking. "Anyone who has sex with an animal, whether they think they are in a loving relationship or not, is abusing that animal," he says. "It is a premeditated form of abuse."
Daily and Barry Fryer help run the Special Operations Unit (SOU), a branch of the RSPCA whose duties include investigating the worst excesses of bestiality. The SOU - in common with the Humane Society in the US - categories all sexual liaisons with animals as abuse- and conciders zoophilia to be inseperable from bestiality. "Because thay have no regard for the animal," says Fryer, "I would put them in the same category as dogfighters."
The SOU encounters all sorts of abuse. In 1994 it assisted in the arrest of a man who had sex with a Staffordshire bull terrier; in 1996, another man was charged with indecent abuse of a pony. But it often finds its hands tied when attempting to prosecute bestialists. To gain a conviction, the SOU must produce evidence from a vet that the animal has suffered, and be able to prove penetration of the animal, either by a penis or a damaging implement. (Bestiality in which the animal penetrates the human is not a crime in England and Wales; Daily is keen that this should be changed.) Such evidence is hard to find: the victims cannot speak, and forensic proof is difficult. As for other evidence, the recent case of a youth in Gateshead who was caught by a security camera having drunken sex with a horse is a rare exception. More typical is the case of the man who was alleged to be in the habit of buying chickens from a local market and then having sex with them in a variety of situations, notably in the bath while being beaten by another person. The SOUs attempt to prosecute him last year failed. The SOU also attempts to convict people for distributing obscene material involving bestiality, and its experiences in this field confirm the impression that there is growing interest in such pornography. Animal sex movies are particularly popular, many with a sadistic bent (eg, crushing small rodents for the viewer's arousal). But the zoophiles I spoke to were adamant that what they practise is quite different from such violent attacks. "There are many cases of spousal abuse in heterosexual relationships," says Ed James, who masturbates his female dog. "But it is downright offensive to suggest that all heterosexual relationships are like that."
Andrew Bukowski, a zoophile from Florida who owns two dogs, Kayzee and Scamps, is equally dismissive of bestialists who "say to hell with the animal, tie it up and just have sex with it... more or less like rapists." And non-zoophile researchers - such as the anthropologist Barbara Noske, who wrote about boys who had sex with she-asses in Algeria - have made a distinction between "bestiality" and "interspecific rape".
Certainly the zoophiles I spoke to were adamant that they were not rapists. Brian, for example, believes that dogs dominate him. He is always the passive partner in the relationship and has never penetrated a dog; it is usually Trey who makes the first move, by rising on his hind legs to show his desire to mount. Another zoophile, a German schoolteacher called Kurt who "fence-hops" to have sex with horses, insists that horses can make unmistakable sexual advances, which include turning around, directing their rear end towards him and tilting their tail to one side. Clearly, an animal cannot give verbal consent, but, as Dr Miletski points out, pet and animal owners can usually determine what their animal does and does not want. "You caress your neighbour's cat in response to obvious cues from the animal. The cat tells you it's OK by not running away or by pushing its head against you, or by purring. When the cat has had enough, it leaves. And if you try to continue caressing the cat, you are in big trouble." According to Ed James, it is the same with sex. "If it appears as though the animal is disinterested, I, like anr responsible and loving zoophile would immediately stop.
Conversely, Beetz points out, many dogs are patently over-sexed by our standards, and male dogs in particular enjoy rubbing themselves against strangers' legs. Beetz adds that many "ordinary" pet-owners choose to interfere violently in their animals' sexual existence by neutering them: a denial of sexuality which is - at least arguably - less morally justifiable than giving the animal sexual pleasure. (Also, of course, we eat animals, cull them, hunt them, leave them alone in the house all day and put them on leashes...)
Dr Miletski confirms that such sexual pleasure is real from the animal's point of view. "An animal can be pleasured by a sex act with a human because the animal does not care, as far as we know, who it has sex with," she says. "An animal can orgasm through its sexual relations with a person." Which leaves us with the question: can "responsible and loving" zoophiles exist? And, if so, should society tolerate them?
SIMON ANDREAE, executive producer of Animal Passions, does not believe that zoophilia is a question of choice, any more than homosexuality or heterosexuality are questions of choice. "But I think it takes someone who is scared of regular sexual relationships and, in the heterosexual domain, scared of women, and who is somewhat removed from the world, to be able to slip over that border. It's a mixture of isolation, fear, a different mental template, some of which maybe hot-wired from birth... Not that there's a gene for fancying animals, but if you imagine someone born with a tendency to be an outsider, it will contribute to a whole constellation of effects which determine a zoophile." If this is the case, argue the apologists, can zoophiles really be blamed - let alone criminalised - for the way they are? Are their "relationships" really so different from the highly intimate relationships that many non-zoophiles have with their pets? Their sexuality may be obscure - bizarre, even - but it is not harmful, immoral or antisocial. As Andrew Bukowsky- who defines a responsible zoophile as "anyone who loves their animal enough to engage in good quality sex, without hurting or abusing the dog" - puts it: "I'm just a human like everybody else. But what Jam and what I do society does not seem to think is normal."
There are echoes in such arguments of the reasoning that used to be advanced by the apostles of "paedophile liberation", and opponents of bestiality argue that they are equally specious. The RSPCA insists that bestiality- with whatever level of assumed consent - breaks an absolute moral code governing our behaviour towards animals. Barry Fryer argues that although we breed and kill animals for food, we must campaign for better welfare up until the point of their death. Although we keep them in captivity, we must ensure they suffer no psychological torture. "We want to see every stage of an animal's life treated with respect and humanity" he says.
He and his colleagues do not accept that this happens in "loving" zoophilic relationships. The absolute devotion displayed by animals in such relationships might just as well be interpreted not as love, but as a loyalty or dependence based on the need for food, affection and protection. "They are abusing the fact that human beings have a power over animals," says Martin Daily. He claims that animals cannot control their actions and are not aware of their implications in the realm of human experience. "If you try and get a dog to have sex with a woman, the dog will, because its a natural biological function. The dog doesn't see anything wrong in what it is doing. We know better," he argues.
Not everyone who believes that animals should be protected from zoophiles is entirely unsympathetic to them. Nicky Radcliffe of the US Humane Society for example, believes that zoophiles need therapy rather than punishment (Nine years ago, in her Maryland catchment area, she rescued a bestialist from a lengthy criminal sentence and placed him on a course of therapy, similar to the 12-step addiction programme for alcoholics; as far as she is aware, he now no longer has sexual relations with animals.) Martin Daily remarks that he would rather see zoophiles spending time contributions they send to animal welfare groups on psychiatric treatment for themselves.
IF ZOOPHILES can be said to have anything in common, it is perhaps that they find relationships with animals less forbidding, or less frightening, than equivalent relationships with humans. The unequivocal love a dog shows a human is rare in a balanced heterosexual or homosexual relationship. Does this mean that animals make easier and more willing partners? "Zoophiles do not have to engage in courtship," says Andrea Beetz, "to invite a partner out on dates or to the cinema and still not know whether or not it will work" Animals are consistent and sincere in their affection and are not tainted by human prejudice or societal expectations. "They show love very openly," continues Beetz. "It doesn't matter if you are poor, do not have a house or are unsuccessful."
This takes the irregularity out of love, some would say the fun of uncertainty, and replaces it with emotional security. Beetz has never come across a case of an animal falling out of love with a human. In other words, this is the easy option: anyone who does not want the responsibility of coming to terms with the complexity of human emotions will find it simpler to engage in a relationship with a dumb and submissive creature.
Brian - Trey's owner - confirms the picture of the zoophile as a pitiable rather than contemptible person. His current "relationship", he says, is not perfect, and he is looking for a human companion. "At times I feel lonely. I would like a friend or a partner, someone to share my life with. As the years have gone on, even though I had friends and part-time dog partners, I felt the need for human companionship. In some ways I would have liked to have had a Family. But there would have been serious problems." He says that living with another zoophile would be the best compromise.
Among other things, he regrets the fact that, in past relationships, the dogs he had sex with were other peoples', which meant that he was never in a position to say goodbye. "That's the worst thing," he adds, "the short lifespan." But he still believes that zoophilia has its compensations. There are many things about humans - such as hypocrisy deceit and ignorance - that irritate him, he says. "I don't think dogs do that, dogs aren't like that. Dogs are very direct with their feelings. They're good judges of character, and they're not easily fooled. You're nor easily fooled are you, Trey?" The dog barks at the sound of his name. "You always know where the food is."