When a Man Dies in a Sex Act with a Horse -- What's a Reporter to Do?

By: Lesley Messer How do you report a story about a man who dies while having sex with a horse? With a snigger? Or straight?

Last Friday, the Seattle Times got wind of an Associated Press item about a local man who died after having sex with a horse. "The sheriff's department didn't expect us to report it because it was too gruesome," said Jennifer Sullivan, the Seattle Times staff reporter who would eventually author two stories on the ordeal.

The AP story gave basic facts about the case. It mentioned that the man -- who died of internal bleeding from anal sex with the animal -- died after visiting a farm in nearby Enumclaw that attracted "a significant number of people" looking to engage in bestiality.

Therefore, Sullivan said, "We thought if there was more than one person participating in this, it needed to be reported."

In her first probe, Sullivan wrote that the farm was discussed in Internet chat rooms as a "destination" spot for people looking to have sex with animals. She reported that this prompted an investigation into whether the chickens, goats and sheep on the property had also been victimized.

"We tried to make it as tasteful as possible keeping out the cause of death. As a surprise, I had at least 70 emails from people and the vast majority wanted to know what killed this guy," she said. "So on the second day we had to be more specific."

Although she never reported the man's name, in her second article Sullivan did say that he was 45 years old and added that he died of acute peritonitis due to the perforation of the colon. But because Washington is one of 17 states that does not outlaw bestiality, having sex with a horse is not a crime and his death will not be investigated.

Perhaps the most lurid detail she added, however, was that when they searched the farm, police had found hundreds of hours of videotape showing men having sex with horses. Police are still making sure that sex was not forced on the smaller, weaker animals, thus constituting animal cruelty (which is a crime). Investigators are also checking to see if other crimes like child abuse or rape occurred on the premises.

When asked if the reporting was especially difficult due to the subject matter, Sullivan explained that she's been working on the crime and court beat for the past six years, three of which have been at the Times, and so is rarely shocked by anything anymore. The community of Enumclaw, however, was not braced for this type of scandal.

"People were very, very willing to talk but they almost thought of it as a joke. It was sort of surreal for a lot of people," she said. "I was surprised with how willing the relatives were to talk."

She said that the man's family -- whom she interviewed for the second story -- asked for anonymity, which the newspaper granted. They never suspected that he was involved in bestiality, and were surprised when they learned that he had purchased a thoroughbred stallion earlier in the year, apparently one of a pair he kept at the farm.

Sullivan also spoke with two neighbors -- a husband and wife -- near the farm who had no idea that this kind of activity had been going on. A few days ago, they were shown a tape of men having sex with horses -- one of which belonged to them.

"It was a really rural community," Sullivan explained. "They were pretty devastated."

But so far, despite the subject matter, public response has been positive, she said. She explained that out of the many emails she's received, only one has been negative. Most of them express sympathy to Sullivan for having to write such a horrific story and thank her for leaving out gratuitous aspects, or using phrases like "horsing around."

The two articles also have prompted a local senator to start drawing up a bill that would outlaw bestiality. Sullivan also reported the opinions of a local animal activist who also is calling for reform.


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