JUNEAU, Alaska – It's a subject that can cause nervous snickering, a little uneasiness and even a few bad jokes.
But many in the southeast Alaska community of Klawock, population 800, weren't laughing last April after a 26-year-old registered sex offender was accused of molesting a local family's pet dog.
The man was spotted by a local woman coaxing the Labrador retriever into the woods near a ball field. There he allegedly tied it to a tree, taped its muzzle shut with duct tape and had sex with it, witnesses told police at the time.
The man had been twice convicted of raping a young boy and more recently had served probation for assault after lunging at a child.
While the incident with the dog was reported to the police, Klawock Mayor Don Marvin said nothing happened for two days while fearful parents escorted their children home from school.
"When this incident happened, we had a community that was scared," Marvin said.
Because Alaska has no law against such an attack, Ketchikan District Attorney James Scott eventually charged the man with two counts of criminal mischief, which was later changed to a theft charge.
In requesting a $10,000 bail, Scott told the court that the state was concerned that if a small child had been available and unattended that day, "the small child would have been found taped (and) tied in the woods."
Shocked by that and other similar cases involving humans having sex with animals, lawmakers in Florida and Alaska are considering bans on bestiality. They are among 15 states where the practice is not explicitly illegal.
Alaska's House Judiciary Committee on Friday heard testimony on a measure that would expand the state's animal cruelty law to include sexual conduct. It would make the practice a class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine.
In Florida, a bill that would make sex with animals punishable by up to five years in prison has been unanimously approved by two Senate committees and has two other committee stops before reaching the full chamber.
Florida Sen. Nan Rich, a Democrat, has a thick folder in her office containing news clippings of cases around the state of people having sex with animals. While the act is sickening enough, she says research has shown that people who molest animals are likely to rape or molest people.
"There's quite a number of cases," said Rich, holding up an article. "This one is, unfortunately, a man having sex with his guide dog. This is about a goat's death, a female goat in Walton County that had been sexually assaulted. Unfortunately it's not an isolated incident. We need a mechanism to prosecute."
The Walton County case in 2006 helped bring the problem to light. There were at least four goat rapes in Mossy Head, including one that resulted in the animal dying. Instead of being charged with a sex act, a suspect was charged with stealing two goats, said Dee Thompson, the director of Panhandle Animal Welfare Society.
Authorities in Tallahassee, Fla., also struggled in 2005 to find charges that would fit against a blind man accused of having sex with his guide dog. The man was initially charged with felony animal cruelty, but prosecutors dropped that charge and recharged him with "breach of the peace."
In Tennessee, bestiality was banned in 2007. Arizona did so in 2006 after a Mesa deputy fire chief was accused of bestial acts with his next-door neighbor's lamb. Washington state also banned sex with animals in 2006, after a man died of a perforated colon from having sex with a horse on a farm in rural King County.
In Alaska, state Rep. Bob Lynn's measure is backed by the Department of Corrections, the Alaska Farm Bureau, the Humane Society of the United States and the Alaska Peace Officers Association.
Rachel Dzuiba, a veterinarian at the Gastineau Humane Society in Juneau, said it would not only protect animals but also protect the public against a cycle of abuse and violence.
"The act of forcing a living creature to engage in a sexual activity without the ability of consent cannot simply be viewed as a personal choice — no more than forcing a child or an impaired adult would be," Dzuiba told the judiciary committee.
The society's executive director, Chava Lee, said she has received several complaints at the Juneau animal shelter about sexual deviancy against animals.
"In each case that has come to my attention, coercion, abuse, threat of physical harm or terrorizing a human during the practice of a sexual assault on an animal was present," Lee said.
According to the national Humane Society, several studies highlight the link between the sexual assault of animals and sex crimes against humans, including:
— FBI research on the backgrounds of serial sexual homicide perpetrators that uncovered high rates of sexual assault of animals;
— A report in the Journal of Forensic Psychiatry that said twenty percent of children who sexually abuse other children also have histories of sexually abusing animals; and
— A Utah State University study showing 37 percent of sexually violent juvenile offenders have a history of animal sexual assault.
The committee also heard testimony from Klawock Chief of Police Cullen Fowler who said the dog that had been allegedly assaulted did not require veterinary care but appeared to have suffered.
Fowler said the pressure of the taped muzzle cause blood vessels to burst in its eyes and the dog was sensitive to the touch, jumpy and afraid for a long time after the incident.