Casual Zooiness in Fantasy Literature

 "Ugh. I would have washed that. The only way I could sneak it off Contraxia was up my ah..."
-Rocket Raccoon (scientifically confirmed to be a raccoon), from Avengers Infinity War (Marvel Studios), $2,048,359,754 grossed worldwide, setting records for highest-grossing opening weekend for a film
These days, it's easy to feel like seeing casual zoosexual representation is a long shot in media that wasn't made by zoos for zoos. We tell ourselves, for instance, that no blockbuster film would ever just add a side character who is dating their horse unless it was played as some kind of joke. It seems like this day and age it would be too controversial to play it straight with that kind of thing, it can't just be touching interspecies care and love, it has to be a crude gag or maybe even a sign of someone's dark abusive side. The presumption is that if a zoosexual romance was played genuinely, audiences wouldn't get it. But, I don't think that's true, and here's why. 
First of all, as I was midway through writing this article, the Baldur's Gate 3 demo came along and proved to everyone that a lot of people want to do Not-Safe-For-Stream with a bear. And that was just, beautiful, I loved that so much. But, when I was originally writing this article, my more reserved thesis statement was going to be this: There is at least one area of very popular media where casual zoosexual representation seems to have been a thing for a very long time now. Books!
In Wheel of Time, one of the most beloved high fantasy book series, there is a character named Elyas who is a member of a wolf pack. When we meet him he could hardly care less for any human interaction, but he does intimately know all of the wolves that he travels around with, they are his family, he is an equal among them. We aren't given the deets but it would be completely unsurprising to learn that he was a mate to one of the wolf bitches in the pack. Far from being played as a joke or as someone out of touch with reality, Elyas is a character who shepherds some of our main characters through a very difficult stretch of their journey, and by virtue of his wholehearted oneness with the wolves he teaches our main characters a lot.
"Are they tame?" Egwene asked faintly, almost hopefully, too. "They're... pets?"
 Elyas snorted. "Wolves don't tame, girl, not even as well as men. They're my friends. We keep each other company, hunt together, converse, after a fashion. Just like any friends. Isn't that right, Dapple?" A wolf with fur that faded through a dozen shades of gray, dark and light, turned her head to look at him.
-The Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan
In The Hobbit, which is a book you might have heard of, there is a character called Beorn who lives among animals. Heck, he *is* an animal some of the time, he is a bear shapeshifter. He straight up reviles the idea of human company (or dwarf and hobbit company), and instead lives away from civilization in a house with a bunch of critters. The Hobbit isn't a kissing book by any means; off the top of my head I can't remember a romantic kiss in the entire thing, irregardless of race or species, and I think the closest we get to knowing that humanoid-on-humanoid romance even exists in this world is that some characters are described as being married. But when it came to Beorn, whether the nature of his relationship with the other animals was hot and sweaty off the page or not, he is shown to have an absolute devoted familial love with his animals, which is pretty zooey in and of itself. As zoos, not every last one of our relationships with animals is sexual, most really are just deeply caring that the animals around us get to live the best lives that they can and are treated with respect in their own terms.
"Well, here is Mirkwood!" said Gandalf. "The greatest of the forests of the Northern world. I hope you like the look of it. Now you must send back these excellent ponies you have borrowed."
The dwarves were inclined to grumble at this, but the wizard told them they were fools. "Beorn is not as far off as you seem to think, and you had better keep your promises anyway, for he is a bad enemy. Mr Baggins' eyes are sharper than yours, if you have not seen each night after dark a great bear going along with us or sitting far off in the moon watching our camps. Not only to guard you and guide you, but to keep an eye on the ponies too. Beorn may be your friend, but he loves his animals as his children. You do not guess what kindness he has shown you in letting dwarves ride them so far and so fast, nor what would happen to you, if you tried to take them into the forest."
-The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
But at this point I do hear the murmuring in the room. Yes, yes, are these examples not sexy enough for you? Do you demand for the owo of it all to be said outright in the text or it doesn't count? Okay then. Ladies and not-ladies, let me share with you the good word about Pulp! Some of you may mainly know of Pulp Fiction as the title of a cool movie, but it also used to be (and kind of still is!) an extremely popular format for short stories and books to be published in. Basically these are books and magazines that were produced on very cheap materials and usually written very quickly to keep up with high demand. We'll get to the bigger picture of why pulp matters in a moment, but as one example of human-animal sexiness in mass market media, let me share something out of a collection of short fantasy stories that I literally grabbed at random off a used book store's fantasy shelf one day. Not looking for zooiness, not even thinking about it, but just having zooiness presented before me unsought.
"Mind you be careful," she whispered. "We don't want any hell-puppies to raise."
The she-wolf flowed smoothly forward. Her black fur gleamed in the dim red light. Flirtatiously, she lowered her forelegs and whined. The Hound's three heads turned with a certain masculine interest.
-Orpheus, by Mary Frances Zambreno, from Sword and Sorceress III, ed. Marion Zimmer Bradley
In that story, these two mercenaries have to get past Cerberus to get into Hell and steal someone's soul back. Cool premise already, not to claim that it's the only story to have ever done that but it's a good starting point all the same, I'm invested in seeing how it plays out. On my first read, I was yawning as I awaited the tedious fight sequence, or maybe if we were luckier they would sneak their way past, or we could even be so blessed as to make the Cerberus some kind of riddle master they have to outwit to get through. But no! One of the mercenaries turns into a sexy dog and seduces Cerberus, distracting him from his guard duties and allowing them to pass! It's a deception, yes, but it's a plot point that directly hangs on a human getting a dog horny: this entire story does not happen if Cerberus isn't turned on by this person.
Earlier in the same book, in a different short story by a different author:
 She bent down to grip his muzzle between her teeth. Firmly she bit down to show her affection; then she filled the empty spot behind each ear with her fingers. He growled his pleasure as his plumed tail flopped against the ground.
Presently other wolves sidled out to greet her and accept her loving touch on their bodies. The black leader leaped up and planted his forepaws on her shoulders. He nipped at her nose--an invitation to play. Delighted with her acceptance into this pack, Megarin romped and wrestled with her new comrades on the forest floor.
-Enter the Wolf, by A.D. Overstreet, from Sword and Sorceress III, ed. Marion Zimmer Bradley
This one *may* be romantic, or at least be moving in that direction sometime down the road, but in spite of the looks it also may not be: sticking your tongue way inside of your fellow wolf's mouth actually is part of how wolves in a pack show they are friendly to one another. It's kind of a sign of trust and closeness, but doesn't necessarily mean you're angling towards making puppies with anyone. But, whether it was intended to be romantic or platonic, or maybe on the line between the two, this is definitely a human-bodied character who is intimate with nonhuman animals.
The book that both of those last two quotes came out of is called Sword and Sorceress III. It doesn't say on the back cover, "Prepare to step into a world of sexy animals and pseudo-bestiality, wolves have never been this hot before." The other stories in the book don't necessarily have anything to do with hot dogs whatsoever. It's just a book of fantasy short stories, and like many short story collections, it kind of comes across like half the point is to promote the publishing house and/or the editor and/or the authors involved. Why the lewd four-leggers?
I think the answer to that is twofold, and both parts have to do with genre considerations. Fantasy, and pulp.
Let's talk about fantasy first, because this also relates back to our examples from Wheel of Time and The Hobbit.
One straightforward reason why fantasy can have seemingly random things in it that set off our zoodar is because the genre of fantasy has strong roots in world mythologies, and many mythological canons across the planet have featured some story or another that involves interspecies sex. Loki and Svaðilfari, Leda and the swan, Horus and Set. Usually these gods aren't supposed to come across as literal humans or literal animals, they are more-so representations of more nebulous concepts like "nature" and "turmoil," but it does still result in classical paintings and sculptures of what looks like a human being intimate with a nonhuman animal. And if that's common enough in the material that you're taking inspiration from, it makes sense that it could end up feeling normal to put it in your own work too, even if it's not for zooey reasons but is just going with the flow.
There's also another reason why zooiness crops up in fantasy literature. It's a little less direct, but I actually think this one is the most common reason why it comes up in the fantasy lit of the 20th century. Think of the defining things you're likely to see in a fantasy story. Magic. Swords. Dragons. But what about where it's all taking place? There are many flavors of fantasy, sure, yes, urban fantasy and space fantasy do exist, but in the core defining examples of the genre, the story is likely taking place in a world that is less ravaged by technology, is closer to the roots of living in forests and keeping farms. So, firstly, you're just going to have way more animals involved to begin with than you would in a sci-fi that takes place on a rocket ship. And to compound that, if you have fantastical creatures here in this ye olde forests setting, you're probably going to have some talking animal critters, and if those talking critters aren't all dead-boring, then some of them are probably going to be charming in some ways, just like our real world's animals.
And lastly on the topic of fantasy: people used to really not be bothered about acknowledging that animals have genitals. If you, hypothetically, lived in a society where it was an everyday sight to see your four-legged mode of transportation drop an erection or two in the course of a day, you'd probably feel less sheltered from the concept of animal sexuality too.
But, is all of this dead and in the past, relegated to a few cherry-picked examples that I was able to scrape together? No! I wasn't trying to single out that random pulp book earlier. I want to talk about pulp much more broadly now. Because in the world of *modern* pulp, beast themes are very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very (very x 20) common.
But wait! Pulp only existed back when reading was one of the main forms of entertainment, so they printed zillions of copies of books and magazines as cheaply as possible to be consumed and subsequently thrown away on a regular basis! Now we have YouTube and stuff, so pulp is dead! That might be true of dyed-in-the-wool "printed on literal pulp" pulp fiction. However. People today still read quite a lot of quickly written, barely edited, cheaply distributed books. This has just moved to the digital world now, and oh my gosh has it made themes of bestiality very searchable. Instead of doing what I do, which is to read random books and sometimes be like "gasp yay dog romance!", you can, if you value your time more and know what you want, click on a search bar somewhere and look up anything that behooves you.
And, it turns out, what behooves a lot of people is romance with animals. Unfortunately, partially due to some platforms having rules that prohibit scenes of outright bestiality in books, usually this animal romance has some kind of gimmick to make it so that the romantic characters are technically two humans. That said, I would still argue there's so much animal attracted romance fiction out there right now that it's actually kind of not even accurate to lump it all into one camp. One very popular niche for readers is shifter romance, where characters will spend parts of the romance book as humans, but then other parts of the book transformed into wolves or bears or frankly a respectable variety of species, and it's while in the form of animals that so much of the falling in love happens. Another hugely popular niche is Omegaverse, which is based on the (scientifically disproven) idea that there are dominant "alpha" wolves and submissive "omega" wolves; in these stories, humans exhibit these wolfish social traits, but many works of Omegaverse fiction also take certain other wolf traits, such as, for example, heat, or, certain cool features of wolf anatomy, into consideration as well. To skirt content rules on the Amazon Kindle self publishing storefront, we even saw dinosaur erotica had its time in the sun for a while, as well as fantasy creatures such as unicorns and Bigfoot, because they all apparently didn't break the "no bestiality" rule; this is why we see parody titles from Chuck Tingle such as Space Raptor Butt Invasion and Bigfoot Pirates Haunt My Balls.
And this is not even to mention the unfathomably big world of non-commercial self-posted furry stories or AU fanfictions that exist on the internet.
So, zoos in media: we do exist! I would love it if we could exist more directly: not having to read between the lines into a possible zoo romance, not having to wrap it in the guise of being human shapeshifters or cryptids or furries. I would love it if my local used book store had a little segment of a shelf that was labeled "ZOOSEXUAL ROMANCE." But, as it stands, I don't think zooiness is leaving media completely until animals stop being such flirts, and so I think zoo icons will still be around for some time to come.
Article written by Alissa Dogchurch (July 2023)
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