Having a deep interest in human sexuality, Robinson Devor’s documentary Zoo has been a film I’ve wanted to see since its release a few years ago. Praised in every magazine review I’d read, I was really excited and desperate to see the character study of an individual who came to be defined by his sexuality upon his death. Chances are you’ve heard about Zoo yourself, it’s selection to be played at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals in 2007 was met with mixed reactions. Some thought it was a well judged piece, others thought it was nothing more than proof that some filmmakers were sinking to new depths in a bid for their work to be considered ‘art’. Needless to say the film is one that will stay with you after viewing, it’s ability to make you question your own opinions and feelings so strongly as disturbing as some people would find the content of the subject. Zoo is the life and death story of Kenneth Pinyan, an American who became infamous for dying from injuries he sustained after having sex with a horse. Devor uses the documentary as an attempt to explore the life of Pinyan and the community he not only belonged to in America but the community for which he also became permanently associated with.
It’s a testament to Devor’s talent as a filmmaker that the documentary remains impartial throughout the entire duration of the study. He neither condones nor condemns what actually happened or the people involved and their feelings. What the audience are left with is a very insightful and sympathetic piece that includes stories and opinions from the various people involved in the 2005 Enumclaw horse sex case. You hear from representatives of the animal charity who were drafted in to take the horses from the farm they were on in King County, Washington to their animal shelter. Neighbours and friends who knew Pinyan tell stories of their times together and what they knew of him. Actors hired to play characters in the documentary’s dramatisation of events express their views on what they learnt doing research for their roles. Fellow zoophiles talk about how well they knew Pinyan and try to explain their sexual orientation and feelings. The importance and revolution of the internet is highlighted and discussed as a platform that these people could and can meet each other through, finding like-minded people worldwide. The documentary is keen to point out that this isn’t something that happens in your stereotypical hillbilly backwards farm towns across the States, it’s a sexual orientation that crosses countries (Germany, Poland, America, even ‘Soldiers in Iraq’) and races (caucasian, black, hispanic).
After viewing, what you are left with is an overwhelming feeling of mixed emotions; disgust and anger, sympathy and confusion. This is an unbiased portrait that really challenges you to consider your immediate feelings and opinions on something and then re-evaluate them once you’re told more of the story. Zoophilia is something I neither support nor judge people for. It’s brave that those in the documentary try to explain to the audience how they feel and why they feel the way they do, especially hard for a sexual minority which is viewed with such repulsion and hatred by the public. They are only human, the film emphasising this as they talk about how hard they have found living with their feelings and how, for some people involved in the incident, their lives have been completely destroyed. It’s especially hard to hear when you see actual footage of the horses in question. They look well, are loved and looked after, fed and have large amounts of land to roam wild in. Although deemed animal abuse, it’s very hard to see signs of injuries or serious neglect that is immediately connected with such an issue. Sexual interaction aside, all men involved admitted to never once hurting the animals; ‘Do they look neglected? No. You love your wife and your kids. It’s the same thing. I took better care of my animals then I ever did care for myself’.
At the centre of it all you have Kenneth Pinyan himself, who will forever go down in pop culture as ‘the guy who died from fucking a horse’. Take a look on YouTube, you’ll find dozens of reaction videos of people watching the video his friend shot of him and the horse in question. Not just any incident, but the one from which he died a few hours later. Search pretty hard and you might even find the video itself. Some of you will even think that he deserved to die after what he did. At the end of the day we have to remember that he was a person too and that there was more to him than just what he is remembered mostly for (again, I will add that I personally neither condone nor condemn what happened and who these people are). Pinyan was a devoted father desperate to get his life back on track and move his family into a bigger home, a very hard worker for Boeing in America, a son and brother, friend to many people and incredibly close to his ex-wife who he looked after. His role as ‘Mr Hands’ (the name he distributed bestiality pornography under) was just another side to him, something he explored when he found a community of like-minded people he didn’t feel alienated from. In the King County he was respected and liked, he was Kenneth. An actor who played a Cop in the documentary highlights how he felt after doing research for the role by trying to imagine and describe how Pinyan must have been feeling knowing he was dying. Was he scared and fearful at how he’d be treated after telling hospital staff what happened? Was he thinking about his son and what he could say to him to try to explain who he was as a person? All we know is he died a very slow and painful death through blood loss, refusing to listen to friends who said he should seek medical help until it was too late. It must have been terrifying.
Zoo is a sad portrait of a man and a community who will probably never be understood or accepted by anyone outside of the world that they know. This is a film that is well worth a watch if you liked to be challenged or like watching things that make you think. Underneath it all, it poses a serious question; how well do we know the people we think we know? Everyone has something they’re holding back from other people, a secret they’ll never tell. Maybe society has made us all far too judgemental on initial appearances. Needless to say, not everything is as black and white as it seems and Zoo really does try to paint the spectrum in between.