Today I’d like to talk about a subject that zoos seem to have mixed feelings on the ethics of: Fencehopping! That is, in short, the act of being intimate with animals who don’t belong to you.
When someone says “fencehopping,” there are a few different things that might or might not count. The most textbook example would be literally jumping over a fence into a stranger’s pasture to covertly have sex with a livestock animal who you haven’t met before. Another thing that might fall under the umbrella of fencehopping, not that I’m speaking from experience on this one, would be if you’re sleeping over at a friend’s house, and his dog who you’ve met many times before has noticed, on this particular night, how good you are at petting her. And so all through the evening she is backing her thing into you, trying to suggest that you let her know whether you’re as good at touching her there as you are touching her on her back. So at some point in the night while the friend is occupied with something else, you and the dog playfully slink off to a private room and fool around a little bit. In this example with the dog, you haven’t “hopped a fence,” and you have established a little bit of a relationship with the animal in question, but you are still ultimately having sex with an animal who isn’t “yours,” and you’re not getting the permission of the actual owner beforehand.
There are many, many schools of thought on the ethics of fencehopping. Some zoos say that fencehopping should never be done: it’s viewed as a very serious transgression against the owner of the animal, plus this animal doesn’t know you, you don’t know this animal, and out of ignorance you might misread his or her cues towards you. Others see fencehopping as completely acceptable: we shouldn’t view animals as our property to begin with, so whether someone legally owns those cows according to human society shouldn’t stop a little spur of the moo-ment display of affection.
I think that’s part of what’s interesting about fencehopping as a topic: it reveals some of the dimensions of how we feel animals should fit into our society. Should they “belong” to us? On some level they should certainly be their own people, but if someone dognapped my partner I definitely wouldn’t be indifferent about that. So, maybe an animal “belonging” to a human does have some merit, but ideally more so in the realm of the social bonds between the animal and the human, rather than in terms of the animal being literal property.
So, if a dog wants to get a little human action, are her options limited to the people in the household? Seems like a little bit of a suboptimal dating pool. Plus if her owners just don’t have a sweet tooth for cookies, she might be completely out of luck dating within the family, and who could then blame a girl for noticing the visitor’s skills at giving her the kinds of petting she enjoys?
I don’t believe that there’s a perfectly succinct answer to the question of fencehopping. I think we live in a complicated and flawed society, which means that we often have to look at things like this on a case-by-case basis. We can say “always respect an animal’s owners,” but how many of our first loves were technically the family pooch who technically belonged to our folks? We can say “animals shouldn’t be property,” but the fact of the matter is that they are considered property by most people, and if we ignore that then we might get these animals in serious trouble with their prudish owners.
So, as one zoo who has fooled around a little bit with a number of dogs, not all of whom had my contact info on their collar, this is my perspective. I think that fencehopping can be done right, but there is a checklist of a few things that you should account for before you leap some barbed wire and undo your belt.
1. Is the animal afraid of you? If you approach a group of cattle at night, don’t be surprised if a bull starts squaring up on you. Sheep, pardon the pun, can be sheepish around unfamiliar humans sneaking up on their flock. Stray dogs might be weary of interaction with a human who they’ve never met before. If you already know “how to talk to” these types of animals, you may be better positioned to approach in a way that they’re agreeable to. But if your advances seem to put the animal in question into fight or flight mode, it’s time to apologize, turn around, and have a night in with your five favorite fingers instead.
2. What would happen if you got caught? Like it or not (hey no kink shaming towards voyeurs), getting caught does happen sometimes. Luckily, I myself have never been stuck into a situation where I had to explain to an owner why me and their dog were playing cross-species anatomical features show and tell, but I have had a few pretty close calls. If you get caught with a friend’s animal, you’re at least in for a difficult conversation, or perhaps a rude nickname that might stick with you for a while. If they take it poorly, you might lose that friend or a whole social group. If you get caught with a stranger’s livestock, you could very possibly be endangering your own life or the life of the animal, depending on how the owner takes it and whether they carry a gun around. If they manage to get video (most people do have a camera on their phone), or if you leave your conspicuously human DNA around in untoward places, you may face very embarrassing legal consequences. Give serious thought to the risk that you might be taking if it were to get out that this had happened.
3. Do you know what you’re doing? Emus, hey that’s a lovely looking cloaca, but I don’t frankly know if giving it a smooch and a finger would be harmful to the poor bird in some way, so I would at least have to pass on them until I can phone a friend and find out one way or the other. We don’t all have to be seasoned sex Adonises, certainly one has to start somewhere and to be fair some of this certainly isn’t rocket science, but it’s probably not a bad idea to ask around or read an FAQ and find out whether the act you’re trying to do is viable or not, and also spend time with the species of your desires in nonsexual contexts to learn their body language.
4. Are you taking their feelings into account? Sure it might seem like the mare in the other barn gets awfully lonely at night, but if you don’t have some kind of connection with her, are you absolutely sure that you’re doing something she wants? It’s important to remember that different animals are going to react to different things in different ways, and just because she lets you get behind her, that doesn’t necessarily mean that she wants you putting any of your business in her thing. If she’s uncomfortable with the situation, or even if she’s just tolerating your existence, that’s not a good situation. Your partner should be having just as good a time as you are.
In general, I believe that fencehopping, even if it may not seem like a good look, is something that can be done ethically. It may, counterintuitively, demand more care than if you and an animal already kind of have a routine together. And a one night stand at the pasture may be risky business if there turn out to be prying eyes. But if someone who thinks of animals with respect told me about a random hookup with an animal who they had never met before, my mind would not automatically assume that something harmful had occurred. It very well may have just been a couple of sexually mature creatures taking care of those urges with each other.
Article written by Alissa Dogchurch (March 2023)
Questions, comments or concerns? Check out the discussion thread on ZooCommunity, or join our Discord server!