Missouri has had a strange relationship with its animals for quite a while now.
The last time I visited this subject was in the previous millennium — December 15, 1999 — in an RFT column headlined "Missouri: Where Men Are Men and Sheep Are Nervous." The column was occasioned by an RFT story that was occasioned by this:
"Missouri has received international publicity, as recently as September and in no less than the Times of London, as a place where 'sex with animals is not illegal,'" I wrote. "The state has gotten similar mentions this fall on British television and in the Daily Telegraph, the Evening Standard and the Independent."
But it was worse than that, as I observed:
"As the RFT reports this week, the star of the documentary is a 47-year-old fellow from southwest Missouri who has caught the attention of the Brits for his passionate love for his 22-year-old wife. The age difference isn't so scandalous, but the fact that his wife is a horse has raised a few eyebrows."
OK, so it was a cheap column topic. But aside from the bad jokes that wrote themselves — yes, I did muse about what the world must have thought of us saying "We love our Rams" as we headed for the Super Bowl — there was the serious point that Missouri had no legislation whatsoever banning bestiality. Noting that "bestiality" was only referenced in state statues regarding sex with underage kids, I wrote:
"Technically, state officials could respond to the British press: 'No, you're wrong to say there are no laws prohibiting sex with animals in Missouri. Why, it's a felony for an adult to have sex with an animal if the conduct also involves a child of 17 or under.'"
But I'm not here to talk about the past. We've actually got some good news to report. Missouri has started to do right by its animals.
Undoubtedly moved by our enterprising journalism, the state legislature sprung into action just two and a half years later by enacting RsMO 566.111 which boldly proclaimed: "A person commits the offense of sex with an animal if he or she engages in sexual conduct with an animal."
Now, cynics might have argued that the prose was a bit of a gift for the obvious, but at least the phrase "Hi, ho Silver" no longer struck fear into a horse's heart. And yes, though the penalty was a strangely light Class A misdemeanor (Class E felony for repeat offenders) given the perversity of the offense, at least the state of Missouri was officially intolerant of this disgusting thing, complete with the following definition codified into our laws:
"Sexual conduct with an animal, any touching of an animal with the genitals or any touching of the genitals or anus of an animal for the purpose of arousing or gratifying the person's sexual desire." Well, that's some TMI.
It should be noted that the law does note, "Nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit generally accepted animal husbandry," but I'm pretty sure that wasn't a reference to the fellow from southwest Missouri who was betrothed to his horse.
But some good things have happened since then. In 2009, a couple of heroic Missouri state troopers — Terry Mills and Jeff Heath — conducted an undercover sting operation, with some help from the Missouri Humane Society, and accomplished the largest dogfighting bust in U.S. history.
Another good thing came in 2010, when voters passed Proposition B, the "Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Act." Unfortunately, in their very next session, Missouri's state legislators determined that voters really meant to enact a "Puppy Mill Slight Modification Act," and a "Missouri Compromise" was reached that allowed dog breeders to sleep better at night. Puppies, not so much.
So that one was mixed.
But today the legislature seems poised to take a stand on a legitimate "Dogs Rights" issue. A bill was perfected last week in the House that would prohibit local governments from passing and enforcing regulations on dogs in a breed-specific manner.
The bill sponsored by St. Louis' own Rep. David Gregory (R-St. Louis County) is essentially a ban on bans. It would prohibit the practice — now in place in nearly 50 Missouri municipalities — of outlawing certain breeds of dogs. Such laws — knows as breed-specific laws (BSLs) — are opposed by animal protection groups, veterinarians, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others nationally.
Gregory is working with another Republican from this region, Rep. Ron Hicks (R-St. Peters), a longtime champion of the cause. Yes, it's a case of Missouri Republicans actually making good sense on an issue, refreshingly.
You probably haven't heard much about BSLs, but they matter. Too often, local communities frightened by stereotypes and myths related to pit bulls, rottweilers and other large dog breeds ban citizens from having them in the name of public safety. Sometimes, even German shepherds are banned.
"Local governments attempting to control what breeds of dogs we can have in our homes is a complete overreach," Gregory says. "My bill will permanently prohibit local governments from such acts and allow our citizens to choose the type of dog they want to raise with their family."
BSLs are themselves a form of animal cruelty. The laws are based on misinformation and misplaced fears on certain breeds of animals, unfair not just to the animals but their loving owners.
"Although intended to improve community safety and comfort, ultimately these laws can cause hardship to responsible guardians of properly supervised, friendly, well-socialized dogs," states the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "Perhaps the most harmful unintended consequence of breed-specific laws is their tendency to compromise rather than enhance public safety. As certain breeds are regulated, individuals who exploit aggression in dogs are likely to turn to other, unregulated breeds."
The ASPCA also argues that BSLs "make criminal of otherwise law-abiding people," causing them to go underground about having their pets and deterring them from seeking routine veterinary care, including essential rabies shots and the like. Dogs are family to millions of Americans, and they will protect them like family.
Your vet will tell you that breed identification is a most inexact science: A dog's DNA can't be visually assessed. And there's real-world consequence to dogs such as pit bulls — which make great companions for a responsible owner, by the way — because BSL laws result in their disproportionate deaths in shelters.
As someone who is skeptical of state lawmakers wanting to impose their will on local communities — there's too much of that looming over our city and county — this is a case where the legislature has a legitimate responsibility to protect dogs uniformly across the state. Good for Gregory, Hicks and others who are doing it.
Now, can we just make it a felony, even on a first offense, to have sex with an animal?
Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or catch him on St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).