By Cassandra Loper
Capital News Service
RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia lawmakers updated state law to better prosecute people who sexually abuse animals in the age of the internet.
Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, introduced Senate Bill 249, which passed both chambers unanimously. The measure establishes sexual abuse of animals as a Class 6 felony. The crimes include sexual contact with animals; possession and solicitation of animals for sexual purposes and the production and distribution of material depicting sexual contact with animals, according to the bill.
A Class 6 felony is the lowest of felony crimes. Virginia’s current law on the sexual abuse of animals is outdated and does not cover the extent of sexual animal abuse, according to Surovell.
The Humane Society of the United States asked Surovell to sponsor the bill, said Molly Armus, the organization’s Virginia state director.
“Senate Bill 249 is an important measure to protect both animals and people,” she said.
Animal sexual abuse continues to be a prevalent issue and is not often taken seriously, Armus said. Making the sexual abuse of animals a Class 6 felony is a satisfactory result, she said.
“This crime in particular has thrived on the internet, both on the dark web and on common websites,” she said.
Under the bill, offenders may have to complete therapy or psychological treatment. This should be a requirement to see why people commit these acts, Armus said.
“This is a difficult topic, I think it makes a lot of people very uncomfortable, but unfortunately it is something that is happening,” Armus said.
Tabitha Treloar, the director of communications for the Richmond Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, supports the bill.
Virginia law makes the sexual abuse of animals illegal, according to Treloar.
“There are a number of really appalling abuse that are not covered in that, largely the trafficking of animals for sexual abuse,” Treloar said.
People who offer an animal for sexual trafficking or release pornographic content involving the animal are not prosecutable at this time, Treloar said.
“The current law does not address how much of this happens in the modern internet age, so this is a really important update to Virginia’s code,” Treloar said.
Laws prohibiting animal pornography have been enacted in at least 10 other states, she said.
“Studies have shown that it is a predictor of an increased risk for committing child sexual abuse,” Treloar said. “Those who abuse animals sexually are very prone to going on to abuse children.”
The rise of internet access and cellphone technology created easier access to animal pornography, according to a 2019 study done by the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. Over 30% of the offenders had also sexually abused children, according to the study. Over 50% had a prior criminal record that also included human sexual abuse.
The FBI began tracking animal cruelty in 2016 as a part of its statewide crime collection efforts. Crimes against animals can be precursors to larger crimes, the agency stated in a press release. There were over 1,160 cases of animal cruelty reported in 2020, according to Virginia Uniform Crime Reporting Program. Cases reported are not isolated to only sexual abuse of animals.
The need for the bill is self-explanatory, Treloar said.
The original bill would have kept a perpetrator from owning an animal for up to five years, or at the discretion of a judge. The amended bill revokes the right of the perpetrator to own an animal.
The bill, which was signed by the governor, excludes acceptable veterinary practices and care required to raise and breed animals.
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.