June 25, 2016KR BlogBlog

Swan, Atlas, Snake, Love

The subject of bestiality rarely comes to the attention of the general public, but when it does, common reactions include ridicule, disgust, interest or fast dismissal . . . Mentioning bestiality evokes rather emotional and extreme reactions.

—Bestiality and Zoophilia: Sexual Relations with Animals,
edited by Andrea M. Beetz and Anthony L. Podberscek

In the final section of my story, “Zoophilia in Four Acts,” which appears in the summer issue of the Kenyon Review Online, a young boy is captivated by an old copy of Hammond’s Nature Atlas of America.

This atlas is real. I own a copy similar to the one described in the story, right down to the torn spine.

nature atlas

When I was a young child, I discovered this atlas on the shelf in a relative’s house. As the kind of kid who spent hours playing alone in the woods, I couldn’t imagine anything better than this strangely written collection of natural wonders. (The atlas really does call the Luna moth a “glamour queen” and the wolverine a “disagreeable countryman,” for example.) I was so clearly in love with this book that my relative gifted it to me on my way out the door, and I’ve kept it ever since.

When I sat down to write “Zoophilia in Four Acts,” I never would have imagined that Hammond’s Nature Atlas of America would become a part of the story. But as I contemplated our complicated human connection to animals and nature, the book surfaced in my mind. I left my writing desk mid-sentence and went downstairs to pull the nature atlas from the living room bookshelf.

There it was, still holding up even with its ripped spine, the same book I’d loved decades ago. That atlas had followed me to different houses and apartments over the years, just waiting for me to take notice of it again. To give it a place in a larger story.


When I set out to write a story collection based on the theme of the taboo, I was initially reluctant to write about bestiality—or rather zoophilia, which I would come to learn is often a better, more specific term for this type of attraction to animals. The subject matter seemed too sensational, too melodramatic, too controversial for the sake of being controversial. Not to mention that, as a longtime vegetarian and supporter of animal rights, I wasn’t sure I could stomach it.

Then I read Bestiality and Zoophilia: Sexual Relations with Animals, a collection of academic essays and studies focusing on zoophilia, and found that the topic was much more complex and wrenching than I’d expected.

I read about zoophilia occurring across cultures worldwide and throughout history. I read about a study of German veterinarians who reported pets injured by sexual contact (a rare sort of study, considering that researchers face professional repercussions for studying something so taboo). I read about people who considered themselves in romantic relationships with animals—a man who feels he is married to his horse, or a woman capable of achieving emotional intimacy only with animals. I read about self-described zoophiles who are active in animal rights causes and who would never physically hurt an animal.

Much of what I read in Bestiality and Zoophilia deeply disturbed me. And yet some of what I read elicited sympathy. That sympathy surfaces in the second part of my story, “Erotic Zoo,” in which a man loves an animal but never acts on that love physically. He is not so far removed from some of the zoophiles I read about in Bestiality and Zoophilia. On the other hand, some of the book’s darker mentions (bestiality sex shows, women having intercourse with snakes) inspired my story’s first act.

Bestiality and Zoophilia therefore provided two foundations for my story: one lurid, one compassionate.


My zoophilia story includes one additional section that was inspired by a myth in all its contradictory forms and depictions: Leda and the Swan.

In 2009, I visited a special Gauguin exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where I viewed Gauguin’s “Volpini Suite: Design for a Plate: Leda and the Swan.” This zincograph shows Leda turning away—cowering, I’d say—while the swan rises up behind her.


I looked at Gauguin’s image and considered why the myth of Leda and the Swan is so attractive to so many. Surely part of it is the grace of the swan, the visually poetic nature of their coupling. And yet their love affair, at least in most versions of the story, was actually rape.

You wouldn’t know that by looking at the artistic renderings of the myth. The scene is often romanticized, with Leda being seduced by the swan or else seducing it herself. She takes pleasure in their pairing. There is no violence, the history of her rape given a new, sensual face.

After viewing Gauguin’s representation of Leda, I went home and made a note somewhere in my messy writer’s notebook: “Something with Leda and the Swan—a retelling?” It was a mere kernel of an idea, one of many that I jotted down and promptly neglected. Besides, I suspected that retelling a myth as famous as Leda and the Swan would be a useless endeavor. Anything I could imagine already felt too predictable, too expected, too easy.

Six years passed. Leda was nowhere on my list of stories to write. Then I started working on this zoophilia story, and she returned to me unbidden. Her coupling with Zeus as a swan might have been mythical, and it was definitely rape, but it was an animal-human pairing that had long captured imaginations. Including my own.


When I finished the first cohesive draft of “Zoophilia in Four Acts,” I wasn’t sure what I had. The story struck me as strange, salacious, and maybe in a way that readers wouldn’t embrace. After all, I’d written about a woman with a snake in her vagina, a man who passionately loves a llama, artists lusting over raped Leda, and a boy who finds himself simultaneously aroused and disgusted by a set of bestiality images. What had I done?

It was the boy in the final act who made me stick with the story. He’s conflicted but he’s kind-hearted, a lover of nature, a person coming to terms with his imperfect human ways. He has the atlas from my childhood. He has my own love of nature.

Here’s a secret: the room I describe as the boy’s is really my own childhood bedroom. His window is larger, and he catches sight of a richer variety of animals outside than I did, but it’s my old room I picture him standing in at the end of that story. The desk by the window, the woods and the shed out back. It’s all mine.

The situation I placed him in is completely different from anything I ever experienced, but even so, I think I know what he’s feeling, there at the end: a hopeless love for nature and all things wild, plus a growing realization of his alienation from the natural world. A guilt and a longing. How he can love something and be a part of it but also stand at a remove, stuck behind a barrier thick and strong and breakable as glass.