Observations of a Nerd

Sexual assault is no laughing matter – unless, of course, the would-be rapist isn’t human. Who doesn’t giggle when they see a small dog humping someone’s leg? But what many people don’t realize is that reverse bestiality – where an animal makes unwanted sexual advances on a person – is a true problem for scientists working in the field where the actions of wild animals are completely unpredictable.

Sure, sexual assault is embarrassing though tolerated when committed by a small, fluffy pomeranian with an overactive sex drive. Most people won’t report the assailant to any kind of authority. It’s even pretty funny when sexual advances are made by large, flightless parrot, even though real harm can be done (as you can see in the video on the right). But what do you do if a much larger creature decides you’re the sexiest thing it’s ever seen?

That is exactly what conservation geneticist Brian Bowen had to ask himself in spring of 2007 when diving off the coast of Australia. It was a beautiful morning for scuba diving. The water was a warm 78.8 ºF with crystal clear visibility of at least 100 feet. Bowen and his team were collecting reef fish specimens for ongoing research into the population genetics and phylogeography of Pacific fish species, when a large, male green sea turtle suddenly approached the divers.

More often than not, sea turtles avoid people. Their natural reaction to scuba divers is to swim away. However, this turtle showed no aversion to the presence of people on his reef. He slowly approached Bowen, staying about six feet off to the side as he passed by. But once behind the confused diver, the turtle suddenly turned around and aimed himself at Bowen’s backside.

Quick to respond, Bowen placed his fish collection device on the side of the turtle, keeping him at a distance. The turtle spun the diver around three times in its attempt to mount, but upon realizing the diver had no intention of allowing such an advance, he eventually gave up and swam away.

i-2579ab6f9641c48595d32f938590ab17-Green_sea_turtle_Chelonia_mydas.JPG
The face of a would-be rapist?

A large green sea turtle in the water is quite the force to be reckoned with. Bowen estimated this turtle weighed in at over 220 pounds, more than capable of injuring an adult human being. More frighteningly, as mating attempts often involve pinning to the sea floor, these large beasts have the potential to drown an unsuspecting victim. Bowen learned that male sea turtles are known to make these unwanted advances at divers with some frequency, as numerous others have shared similar stories.

Bruce Gernon, an Islamorada real estate agent diving on vacation, recounts a terrible encounter with a large, male loggerhead sea turtle. “The damn thing really overpowered me,” Gernon told local news columnist Bob Epstein. The reptilian attacker pinned him to the sea floor, scaring him half to death. Gernon goes on to describe the attack in detail:

I shoved a lobster at the turtle who inhaled the crustracean, and then I spun out of its grasp. I felt I was free of the encounter, but then the turtle, with renewed interest, grasped me again with its front flippers from the back and around my shoulders. Once again it attempted to pin me to the bottom. All the while the stupid turtle probed me in my backside. Being a strong swimmer and determined not to be molested any further by this deluded loggerhead, I twisted out of its grasp and made for the surface and my boat.

Bowen & Gernon were lucky that their quick reflexes saved them from potentially dangerous and demeaning situations. Others that Epstein spoke to were not so fortunate. Another male diver, who wished to remain anonymous, told Epstein a turtle attacked him twice, pinning him to the bottom. According to Epstein, the turtle eventually “made good its mating attack on this luckless individual.”

These cases serve as a warning to all that animal sexual assaults are serious and dangerous. It’s likely that the frequency of such incidents is even higher, as the social stigma of being the victim of such events is so strong that many attacks likely go unreported. Upon publishing his article, Epstein received at least 10 calls from other victims who had not spoken up previously.

Why do animals shag other species? It’s hard to say. Evolutionarily speaking, there’s no real point in it. Sexing up a member of another species isn’t going to produce offspring. So did the turtle or the parrot mistake their victims for members of their own species? It seems unlikely – but I guess it’s possible. Or were they just so sex crazed, with their hormones on overdrive, that they simply couldn’t stop themselves? Perhaps a truly prepared scientist can find out, if they’re willing to put themselves at risk of assault for the sake of a blood sample.

I want everyone to know this, though: if you are ever sexually assaulted by an animal, do not be afraid to share your story. You are not alone. While it may be hard to verbalize your trauma, you have to know that it wasn’t your fault. You didn’t ask to be attacked. You should also know that by telling of your assault, you are helping others who are not brave enough to do the same. Your account may even help catch a repeat offender. No one should have to feel ashamed by what a wild animal has done to them. No one.

And for those of you who think sexual assault by a turtle or a kakapo is funny: shame on you. Those are real people who have undergone real trauma. Have some compassion! Someday, if karma exists, you may find yourself on the wrong end of an animal’s long stick – and I bet you won’t find it quite so amusing then.

ResearchBlogging.org Citations:
Brian Bowen (2007). Sexual Harassment By A Male Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas) Marine Turtle Newsletter, 117
Epstein, B.T. 1989. Turtle Attack is reported: Loggerhead molests divers. The Reporter (weekly newspaper for the Upper Florida Keys), September 7, 1989, pp. 1-2.

Comments

  1. #1 JRMorber
    January 28, 2011

    Oh, I love this and poor scientists! I’ve heard tell of sexual assault from dolphins too!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PvzOEzjPqc

  2. #2 Morgan Jackson
    January 28, 2011

    First, awesome post, and something that needs more attention (like those turtles apparently…)

    Second, they should all be glad it wasn’t a duck in hot pursuit…

    http://www.nmr.nl/nmr/binary/retrieveFile?instanceid=16&itemid=2574&style=home

  3. #3 Martin
    January 28, 2011

    Joking aside, this is an issue with large domesticated animals, too. Young male horses sometimes attempt to mount their handlers, either as a display of dominance or out of simple adolescent equine horniness. It’s amusing when a small colt does this, but it’s downright dangerous when an 800-pound yearling does it. Proper training of an intact male equine includes disabusing him, early on, of the notion that humans are an appropriate target for this behavior.

  4. #4 CIV
    January 28, 2011

    I’ve been told that female researchers have to be careful when studying orangutans and perhaps other apes, because they try to rape them. They have to go on continuous hormonal birth control to avoid it.

  5. #5 Leslie
    January 28, 2011

    Like at least 90% of folks reading this I am still laughing … sorry. But I have to admit, I have never thought about this before, and I have seen many a dog humping leg. What it points out to me, though, is that we “humans” are just another species, and while we think of ourselves as separate and superior, fact is, we are not.

    Also makes me wonder about rape in general … if somehow “power” and “dominance” verses an excess of sex drive might be more at play here.

  6. #6 Otranreg
    January 28, 2011

    During the last session in court, Mr. A. Phile made a number of statements, which could be summarised in the following: “Oh, Your Honour, the guy was asking for it, just check out that slutty skin-tight suit and those huge cylinders, wouldn’t you have done the same had you been in my place?”

    Judge Amoeba made no reply.

    Later that day Mr. A. Phile told the press that he was denied the daily shell polish allowance guaranteed by the law. He lamented that, quote “the turtle rights don’t mean anything anymore in this country.”

    (Disclaimer: this is silly, but I couldn’t help my incontinence)

  7. #7 Gretchen
    January 28, 2011

    CIV said:

    I’ve been told that female researchers have to be careful when studying orangutans and perhaps other apes, because they try to rape them. They have to go on continuous hormonal birth control to avoid it.

    How does hormonal birth control help one avoid being raped?

  8. #8 Liz
    January 28, 2011

    This is quite simply awesome – that clip of Mark Carwadine being assaulted by a kakapo had me in tears (with mirth, I’m afraid to say, rather than sympathy).

  9. #9 tawaen
    January 28, 2011

    I know someone who had a problem with this while cleaning the bottom of his boat in Florida.

    In fairness to the manatee, though, he is about 250lbs and was wearing a full wetsuit at the time. It was an honest mistake, most likely.

  10. #10 WhySharksMatter
    January 28, 2011

    This is, without a doubt, the single best thing you have ever written. Please please please submit it to the next OpenLab.

  11. #11 CK
    January 28, 2011

    My husband tells people I was humped by a manatee. I admit it grabbed me with it’s flippers, would not let go, and was rolling us both…but there were no gonads involved and I was laughing like crazy. The whole business was video-taped by a tour group, so when he says this, I offer to show people the video so they can decide if the manatee was truly being a pervert or not.

  12. #12 Richard
    January 28, 2011

    I witnessed a dolphin & a manatee attempt to do the wild thing with a (straight) friend of mine while scuba diving. Not on the same day though. Funny, he always attracted attention from gay men too. hmm..

  13. #13 jb
    January 28, 2011

    That’s the most dedicated naturalist I’ve ever seen, and a great post. It occurs to me that if the kakapo could fly even a short distance you’d have to stay out of the forest.
    Of course there’s a whole genre of horror flicks featuring turtles/manatees could come out of this, with big savings on special effects if you cast it right. ‘Wanted: Good swimmer who really, really wants to be a star.’

  14. #14 daedalus2u
    January 28, 2011

    Could it be due to some imprinting thing from sea turtle eggs being rescued, hatched and released by humans? It is kind of hard to imagine a mechanism.

  15. #15 ZooDude
    January 29, 2011

    I had a friend who was actually immobilized by the amorous advances of a large python. Very peculiar. Definitely the joke of the day at the zoo.

  16. #16 Phillip IV
    January 29, 2011

    Sexing up a member of another species isn’t going to produce offspring. So did the turtle or the parrot mistake their victims for members of their own species? It seems unlikely – but I guess it’s possible.

    I think ‘species’ is a human concept, and the instinctual programs that animals use to identify suitable mating partners probably tend to evolve only to an adequate level of precision (since their would be not much selective advantage beyond that) – with humans hanging around a lot of habitats they aren’t really native to, accidents will happen. For us, a human might not look much like a turtle, but for a turtle they might look and move more like a turtle than any other animal they would normally encounter in their habitat.

  17. #17 dragonfly
    January 29, 2011

    ” I’ve been told that female researchers have to be careful when studying orangutans and perhaps other apes, because they try to rape them. They have to go on continuous hormonal birth control to avoid it.”

    “How does hormonal birth control help one avoid being raped?”

    Hormonal birth control works by making the body behave as if it is pregnant, changing the levels of hormones, so, I would assume, would make the researcher smell less sexually receptive.

    I cannot verify that this is the case, however.

  18. #18 Fakrudeen
    January 29, 2011

    Maybe this is how SIV became HIV :)

  19. #19 Blackbird
    January 29, 2011

    Great post! For a hilarious, if misinterpreted, account of tortoise-foot love:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/jul/17/tim-dowling-tortoise-bite-toe

  20. #20 Coracina
    January 29, 2011

    I had trouble with a male Emu at a wildlife reserve in South Australia. He would walk up behind me, put his neck over my shoulder and gaze into my eyes – then try to lead me into a suitable nest-site under a bush, doubtless hoping that I would lay eggs… Turned out he had been a pet in a shearer’s family, and played with the kids all day, including going swimming with them. When he grew up and became tiresome, they released him in the bush, where he was found outside the Reserve, ogling a female Emu inside. When shooed in through a gate, he soon discovered humans and took to living just outside headquarters, and to making approaches to all female staff members. Fortunately an Emu is not a very heavy bird, though large, and is not equipped with dangerous claws, unlike a Cassowary.

  21. #21 Alan
    January 31, 2011

    I saw a woman, clearly of post-menopausal age, swimming and playing with Moko the dolphin in New Zealand. Not 50 feet away was a sign warning people not to do this.

    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10587420

    http://news.ninemsn.com.au/world/1000055/irate-woman-whacks-delinquent-nz-dolphin

  22. #22 Blorgle
    January 31, 2011

    I don’t have the source, but I heard that when researchers first tried incubating the sea turtle eggs and then releasing the babies into the wild, they incubated the eggs at the wrong temperature, leading to several years where the new turtles were almost all males. These generations of turtles should be reaching sexual maturity about now, and the males vastly out-number the females, so yeah….

  23. #23 Emilyn
    January 31, 2011

    I recently learned that Orangutans (unlike other primates) frequently use rape as a reproductive strategy, especially the younger males who don’t yet have large cheek-flaps and thus are not appealing to females.
    The scary part is that they have been known to sexually assault human females. Imagine being raped by a 250lb male orangutan. Frightening.

  24. #24 PlaydoPlato
    February 1, 2011

    I almost got caught up in a three-way with two cows. When cows are in heat, they’ll hump each other. I’m not sure why, since they’re both females. Maybe the behavior is a signal to bulls that there’s some hot bovine action up in the pasture.

    Anyway, I was out in the field bringing in the milking herd when a couple of the cows start going at it. We’re talking several hundred pounds of beef, hoofs, and horns flying around. I tried breaking them up… dumb idea…. and almost got knocked to the ground.

    I swear one of the cows gave me a look that said, “you’re next loverboy.” I quit that scene, cause that’s not how I roll.

  25. #25 Wow
    February 1, 2011

    “When cows are in heat, they’ll hump each other. I’m not sure why, since they’re both females.”

    Lesbo action is fine. It’s only homo action that makes baby jesus cry.

    Please ignore all cases of animals getting it on in a rainbow stylee that would prove that wrong: that isn’t the proof I’m looking for. [waves hand].

  26. #26 Sven DIMilo
    February 4, 2011

    Well, turtles. I keep three in a 55-gallon aquarium at home, all males, all different species, but they spend a ridiculous lot of time trying to court and mount each other. One of them is also clearly smitten with the half-flowerpot on the tank bottom.

    I don’t have the source, but I heard that when researchers first tried incubating the sea turtle eggs and then releasing the babies into the wild, they incubated the eggs at the wrong temperature, leading to several years where the new turtles were almost all males.

    This is true, but it was Kemp’s Ridleys.

  27. #27 arvind mishra
    February 4, 2011

    Quite queer!In other contexts imprinting may be a cause for reverse bestiality ..the classic case being that of Konrad Lorenz whose captive birds often made sexual advances towards him ..the same factor might be at work in case of Pomeranian and other pets which are reared from an early critical days of their lives making them susceptible to imprinting.

  28. #28 JLA
    February 5, 2011

    A domesticated turkey attempted to mate with my brother when he was about six or seven, possibly because all of the female turkey had been killed by a weasel. His face was wet afterwards.

  29. #29 Calli Arcale
    February 7, 2011

    Philip IV @ 16:

    I think ‘species’ is a human concept, and the instinctual programs that animals use to identify suitable mating partners probably tend to evolve only to an adequate level of precision (since their would be not much selective advantage beyond that) – with humans hanging around a lot of habitats they aren’t really native to, accidents will happen. For us, a human might not look much like a turtle, but for a turtle they might look and move more like a turtle than any other animal they would normally encounter in their habitat.

    This makes perfect sense to me, and would also explain all of the objectophilia in the animal kingdom. Moose, rhinos, and sea lions have all developed sexual feelings for cars, sometimes severely damaging the car and certainly making it impossible for the owner to drive to work, as they may defend their “mates” vigorously.

    and JLA @ 28:

    A domesticated turkey attempted to mate with my brother when he was about six or seven, possibly because all of the female turkey had been killed by a weasel. His face was wet afterwards.

    Turkey toms are notoriously unpicky, and some have speculated that this is because of their anatomy — they are physically unable to see most of the female while mating, and consequently most of her body is thus useless as a sexual signal. Some researchers trying to come up with a better way of extracting semen for the purpose of artificial insemination experimented to see just how accurate a fake female would have to be in order to get the male to perform. Turns out . . . not very. In fact, they were just as happy with a hen’s severed head on a stick as they were with an entire hen.

  30. #30 M. Poopyhead
    February 7, 2011

    Why would an animal have sex with a member of another species when there’s no evolutionary advantage to it? Not all sex is for procreation. Why do humans do the same? Most men who do this either have no access to women or are of such low status that animals are their only available sexual partners. Animals are their only form of sexual release. It’s really just a form of masturbation for them, and I suspect it’s the same for the animals trying to hump rocks or humans.

    By the way, I notice these documented rape attempts are all done by males. Have there been any female attacks on humans, or any researchers seen any of them using a rock or a stick as a dildo?

  31. #31 Wow
    February 8, 2011

    Some also just like it with animals rather than humans.

    Women too. So not just men.

    As to your last query, I suppose it’s much harder to work out when an assault by a female animal is sexual. To some extent walking away with the bits on show is intended to be an offer to enter. The expectation is that the offer will be accepted.

    This is still sexual advance.

    And when it’s not taken, butting up, rubbing etc may happen but it would still be possible to denote it as just playing. It’s a little harder to hide the game “hide the sausage” as merely playing.

  32. #32 ShiKaze
    February 10, 2011

    An interesting experience – once I was at the Hogle Zoo (SLC UT) and watched a peacock try to woo and display for a group of turkeys. The male turkeys were having none of it, and would try to chase away the peacock. He would run away momentarily, then come back and display some more for the hens, until once again getting run off.
    Also, I have had male dogs (father and son btw) who on occasion do more than play, and in the past had a family of female cats where 2 in particular, when going into heat, would also do more than play. Strictly indoor cats, I was not going to get them fixed until their behavior (the caterwauling noise more than anything else) forced my hand.

  33. #33 James Sweet
    February 10, 2011

    And for those of you who think sexual assault by a turtle or a kakapo is funny: shame on you.

    OK, turtle = not funny, but kakapo = a little funny. Well, I suppose it wouldn’t be if the victim were really traumatized by the whole experience, but I would like to think that most of us would try our best to take it in stride.

    As far as why animals do this, isn’t it obvious? The grist for evolution is not behaviors per se, it’s random mutations in protein sequences. For every mutation that increases the desire of the organism to mate with its own species while having no effect and/or decreasing increasing the desire of the organism to mate with other species, there have to be a bazillion mutations that simply increase the organism’s desire to mate with any old warm hole (to put it crassly). While certainly the positive selection pressure will be higher for mutations that promote high specificity in mating behavior, I have trouble believing that insert-penis-in-any-hole phenotypes wouldn’t also experience some positive selection pressure. Assuming that DNA sequences that code for high specificity mating are not always competing alleles with sequences that code for low specificity mating (which I think is a safe assumption), then we would expect that any given organism would, in addition to alleles that code for mating specificity, have a large number of alleles that code for just mating with stuff, period.

    In other words, from an evolutionary perspective, it’s better to fuck a lot (even if you sometimes miss) than it is to fuck a little.

  34. #34 Wazza
    February 10, 2011

    If I remember correctly, one researcher was being head-raped by Kakapo so often that they ended up giving him a special hat designed to collect semen when it happened, to help the breeding program.

  35. #35 Wow
    February 11, 2011

    “And for those of you who think sexual assault by a turtle or a kakapo is funny: shame on you.”

    Schadenfreude.

    Humans just seem to be wired that way. Even if we empathise and feel sorry for the victim, we can’t help it.

  36. #36 Wow
    February 11, 2011

    “As far as why animals do this, isn’t it obvious? The grist for evolution is not behaviors per se, it’s random mutations in protein sequences.”

    No. It’s for the same reason men get hairy ears as they age. Because there isn’t any evolutionary disadvantage in it happening.

    As long as you don’t slaughter the amorous animal taking opportunistic help from their approach, the behaviours of boffing the wrong animal has no evolutionary disadvantage over or above a failed insemination of the right species and sex. Not every sexual encounter ends up with progeny and the energy wasted is not a problem in normal habitat absent severe ecological stress.

  37. #37 PeaceandDice
    March 3, 2011

    Though I have sympathy for those being “sexually assaulted” (I use this term loosely, as I feel there’s most likely no intention of pure aggression), I cannot blame the animals whatsoever. You have to remember that you are in THEIR territory, THEIR habitat, THEIR domain.

    Just like when an animal attacks, they are wild and you are in their realm, not the other way around. Even domesticated animals are still ANIMALS. They are unpredictable and it is utterly unfair to try and punish these animals and make them seem as sexual deviants and compare them to that of a (human) rapist.

  38. Kakapos are so rare that perhaps the males don’t get close to a receptive female often enough.

  39. #39 Craig
    June 4, 2011

    It’s not just male animals either… I used to work on a farm taking care of horses. There was one mare in particular who when in heat, would make advances toward me and the other people who worked on the farm. The first time she did it, I thought she was going to pee or poop on me because she’d turn around, raise her tail, and back her read-end against me. She never did though, so my guess is she was after something else. I learned to get out of the way, as she pinned me to the fence once. Talk about an akward position to explain had someone else seen it. Eventually she got the hint I wasn’t going to play ball, and stopped trying.

  40. #40 Malcolm J. Brenner
    October 1, 2011

    My novel, “Wet Goddess: Recollections of a Dolphin Lover,” is a fictitious recounting of an all-out, nine-month-long sexual, emotional and psychological assault launched on me by a female bottlenose dolphin who apparently wanted to have sex with a human being out of curiosity. That we came to love each other says a lot about what our species share in common.

  41. #41 Sualcalay
    November 17, 2011

    ” Someday, if karma exists, you may find yourself on the wrong end of an animal’s long stick – and I bet you won’t find it quite so amusing then.”
    Eff that Christie, someday if Karma exists YOU may find yourself on the wrong end of an animal’s long stick you evil woman. What a messed up way to end an article…what is wrong with you? :S

  42. #42 WoofGirl
    January 24, 2012

    Actually, I find myself on the end of an animal’s long stick quite often. It’s still not amusing, but rather enjoyable if I say so myself.
    Woof.

  43. #43 afrika mangosu
    February 7, 2012

    Talk about an akward position to explain had someone else seen it. Eventually she got the hint I wasn’t going to play ball, and stopped trying.

  44. #44 artiewhitefox
    February 15, 2012

    The non human animals have the spirit of God in them doing this. That means God himself is in the innocent animals asking to have sex with us. God is not divided against himself. God is therefore not against the zoo no matter what humans would otherwise say. The non human animal does not know what bad is anymore than God knows what bad is. This is showing us we should give the zoosexual peace. Devils don’t like peace. Lets push the devils away, and embrace peace.

  45. #45 artiewhitefox
    February 15, 2012

    The bird says you, yes you, I am going to mate with you, Don’t fight it, I have made up my mind. Follow my instructions.Don’t move,that’s all I ask.

  46. #46 Erik Andersson
    March 5, 2012

    I was raped brutally by a dog (While completely drunk and helpless, but still) 2 years ago and not many know…no-one i know irl knows… It is a very big trauma for me mentally, but it also hurts pretty bad psychically and i havent gotten it checked out… imagine it yourself… having to tell the doctor all that… :/