Robinson Devor’s Zoo made a big splash even before anyone anywhere saw a frame of footage. The film focuses on the strange case of Mr. Hands, a Seattle man and father whose secret life as a zoophiliac led to his demise – Mr. Hands would meet with a group of like-minded men who would allow themselves to be mounted and penetrated by horses. One such encounter proved to be Mr. Hands’ last, as he suffered major internal injuries and died after being dumped at a local emergency room. The incident became a media sensation – it was perfectly lurid and bizarre, with a cast of characters ready-made to be demonized.
Zoo isn’t a sleazy look at the event. Devor’s film is, more often than not, a tone poem, a beautiful and meditative examination of these men and their environment. It’s a fascinating movie, one that will disappoint anyone looking just for Stile Project-level nastiness. This, of course, puts Zoo in a weird position – it’s a gorgeous movie about an unpleasant subject, and the people who would appreciate it might tend to stay away, while those with a juvenile interest in the subject will surely be disappointed.
How did you first become aware of the strange fate of Mr. Hands?
It was pretty difficult to avoid it in Seattle. I think it was front page news on many newspapers. I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I know it was covered extensively on TV and radio and then bloggers got a hold of it, so it was out there. It was the biggest story in the history of the Seattle Times, which has been around for a hundred years. It was quite a sensational moment.
What does it say about the world we’re living in, when a story about a man dying from having sex with a horse becomes the biggest story in the history of a hundred year old paper?
It probably means there is a grim redundancy of other kinds of news stories. This type of disastrous news tends to sell more papers than positive stories, and this was in particular was a strange twist on bad news. But you know, the Seattle Times is a conservative newspaper, and I was told by people that were involved that there was an agenda, an effort to whip up a frenzy about moral decline. There is always a war going on between left and right.
For a lot of people their interest in the story is a salacious one, but your film is about as far as you can get from a salacious look at this story. What was the hook that got you into this story and made you decide to make a movie like this?
For us the whole impetus of deciding to make the film was, can we attempt to resurrect a man’s ruined reputation posthumously in some small way with this film? That was our initial creative challenge, and so we thought we might have more access to people who might speak on his behalf, but that’s the not the case. It kind of shifted a little bit, but we always knew that it would be a little too easy to make something that would snicker at the circumstances. We thought there’s probably some mystery and some poetry somewhere in this, especially given the beauty of the physical surroundings where these men met, in the shadow of the volcano in these beautiful green fields with these horses in the summer evenings. And beyond that we knew a person died, and that people were mourning and there had to be some friendship and some decency and some love amidst these people would meet. That was the goal, to give these men – and also the horse rescuer Jenny Edwards as the horse rescuer – to show them as compassionate people who were hurting on some level for the death of the man or for the animals themselves that were involved. We were pretty sure there would be some somber elements to the film as well.
You go out of your way to not divulge Mr. Hands’ real name, which is in the public record at this point. Why did you decide to keep his name out of it?
Number one, his family asked that we not put their last name in the film. They declined to participate but that’s something they requested; I think it would have been silly to play hardball and say, ‘If you’re not going to participate we’re going to put the name out there.’ I don’t think the name is that important. I don’t think naming somebody, outing somebody is that important. The second aspect of it is that the men who were alive were participating and we agreed not to use their real names, so we were using their internet handles – Coyote, Happy Horseman, etc. So that fell into a nice anonymous blanketing of the cameras.
You have a scene where people are shown video footage of a man having sex with a horse. I’ve seen that footage online, and maybe you can clear something up: that’s not the video of Mr. Hands’ final encounter?
Yeah, that’s what I’ve been told. My impression is that that was always rumored to be the death tape, and one of the gentlemen in the film wanted to make sure to let the world know there were some conclusions that were jumped to, and that a man is going to groan mightily in the middle of such an act. Those are not the death throes of Mr. Hands.
You show that footage obliquely. We see bits and pieces, although you do keep the soundtrack, which I think is the most affecting part of the video anyway, but why did you decide not to show the video in more detail?
The fact is that the ranchers who owned the horse had to sit down and watch a bunch of videos in front of the police and say, ‘Yes, that’s my horse.’ We thought that was grimly funny, that they would have to do that. We were more interested in seeing the faces and reactions of the people in the room. And number two, the sex was not something we wanted to overload the film with, and in fact it wasn’t that important to us. There are some things you can leave to the imagination, and God knows if there’s one thing you can leave to the imagination, it’s this story.
It’s interesting that you say the sex isn’t that important to you, but it really is the sex that makes these people different from anyone else who just happens to really love and commune with horses. That is the dividing line.
It is. But there isn’t anything on this Earth that someone hasn’t sexualized, and there are hundreds of thousands of subsets of sexuality. But it was the commonality that these men had with everyone else that was of interest to me – gatherings, as boring as they were, where they would watch some movies and have some drinks and hang around, saying nothing in particular. That was more interesting to me than the sex, per se.
How important do you think the internet is to this subculture? Do you think this sort of a subcultural can exist in a serious way only with the internet, or do you think there was as large a subculture before the internet?
The internet was extremely important to them, and I think most of them said that unlike other subsets, subcultures, these guys, many of them thought they were involved in something where they thought they were the only people doing it. The internet gave them the impression that there were hundreds of thousands of people doing it, so I’d say the internet changed everything.
There’s an interesting line in the movie where someone says that the internet allowed them to see that sex with horses could actually be done, which means that the guy was interested in it, but never had the ability to physically do it. Is it your impression that the internet made this more common, since people who had the interest but didn’t know how to go about it suddenly could?
I’d say that’s fair to say. Absolutely.
Your film has drawn a lot of attention right from the beginning. Some people have seen it sight unseen, in fact, and one the attacks I’ve seen leveled at Zoo is that it’s part of a culture of grey morals, where if someone likes an activity we have to accept it and not make a moral judgment. What’s your response to that?
My feeling is that this is human behavior. You can either accept it or not. I don’t believe you can put this in the category of behavior that can be fixed or altered. We often say we see ourselves as more like anthropologists who have the opportunity to travel deep into a remote part of the world and see a group of people, a culture, who are doing things that are extremely foreign to us, and I think that our job was to bring back and document what they said and to not overcontextualize it and editorialize it and make contradictory statements that would rebuff their practice. This was a chance for them to present themselves; this was clearly more their document than anyone else’s. You have to remember that these men did not have their time in the press at all; these men did not have one shot at saying anything. There was a big hole in the balance of the story, and there’s been plenty of stuff about how wrong this is and how immoral this is and how it’s bad for the animal. The points of view that were not gathered and disseminated were those of the men themselves. It doesn’t mean we agree with it, but we felt that as documentary filmmakers that it was absolutely worthwhile to let these men speak. Not that we would ever compare these men to other characters that are dangerous and evil, but certainly Americans have no problem interviewing and fictionalizing all sorts of criminal behavior for the sake of entertainment. This was just an investigation into who these men were and how they felt about this issue. That was it.
I was interested in seeing how both sides of this issue, Jenny the horse rescuer and the men both assign certain anthropomorphic qualities to these animals. On one side it’s that these animals can’t consent and they’re like children, while on the other side it’s that these animals wouldn’t get involved in this if they didn’t want to do it. Where did you end up at the end of this process?
I think animal consciousness is a very, very profound and mysterious territory. I certainly don’t think anybody could say exactly what is going through an animal’s mind if an animal is engaged in that behavior. You have to look at the idea of conditioning, of very soft conditioning, and whether that’s right or wrong. I think there needs to be more investigation in the same way that human sexuality was investigated; it’s going to take a lot more study of these types of encounters to really examine the animal’s behavior and to make some calls whether it’s something right or wrong for them. I feel that to have a non-sexual relationship with an animal is one of the most beautiful things in the world. That’s pure companionship and love, and to bring sex into that, to me personally, saddens me. That relationship is almost the summit of all love. But on the other hand, they would make the case that this is an extension of that love.