Unnaturally Offensive: Queensland Zoophilia

Australian law has generally taken a tough stance on bestiality (or 'zoophilia'). Until the mid-19th-century it was considered illegal enough to warrant the death penalty, although nobody was ever hanged for the offence here. It remained a capital crime in Queensland until 1865, when the Offences against the Person Act changed the maximum sentence to penal servitude for life with a minimum of ten years. In the Unnatural Offences section of that Act, bestiality was dealt with in the same sentence as sodomy, both being referred to as “the abominable crime of buggery committed with mankind or with any animal", and also as "an infamous crime”.

The vast majority of "unnatural offence' court cases in the historical records relate to homosexual acts, especially against children. Even men who engaged in anal sex with their wife could face the death penalty, as Lawrence Maher of Maryborough found out in 1864. The death sentence was recorded but not carried out in his case. Trials for bestiality were few and far between in early Queensland, and these all involved male defendants because "unnatural offence" laws about bestiality and homosexuality laws did not apply to women.

One of the earliest trials involved a Chinese immigrant named Tee Ang. In 1852 he was living in a camp in South Brisbane, where he was arrested for committing the crime on a dog there. The newspaper articles did not go into many details in these matters, but in this case it was reported that the dog was so badly injured by the act that it had to be put down. At this time such "unnatural offences" were still a capital crime and Tee Ang was sentenced to death, although his sentence was later commutated to 12 months hard labour working on the Newcastle breakwater. Two more Brisbane cases during that decade involved attempted bestiality and attracted two-year sentences. The first was 60-year-old John Moore in 1857, and then Benjamin Jackson during the following year for his attack on a dog, the details of which were described in the Moreton Bay Courier as "horrible and disgusting".

Another case involved William Sunnington (or Sturmington or Simmington), an English immigrant working as a farrier (with horses hooves and shoes) in Maryborough. In 1875 a man and woman witnessed him committing bestiality, although the species of animal was not referred to in reports. Sunnington received ten years imprisonment. He was initially sent to the penal establishment at Saint Helena Island, where he worked as a farrier, before being sent to the old gaol on Petrie Terrace where he died of heart disease in 1878 at the age of 58. He was buried in Toowong Cemetery.

William Sunnington, 1875. (Qld State Archives)

It seems the minimum ten-year sentence was not always applied. In 1886 one old Brisbane man received 12 months for the crime, but in 1894 George Gayton of Bundaberg got ten years (although he was released on remittance two years later). One Blackall man also received ten years for the crime in 1900, but in 1909 another Blackall man only got three years. In 1919 the unfortunate William Webster received a two-year sentence in Cairns for attempted bestiality. Apparently he was too drunk to succeed in his attempt.

George Gayton, 1894. (Qld State Archives)

This quick run-through of some Queensland cases shows that they were relatively rare, but it has to be assumed that the prosecuted cases were only the tip of the iceberg as far as the extent of the practice goes. It is one of the more unfortunate details of Australian legal history that homosexuality (which was widespread in the colonies) was treated under the same laws as bestiality, paedophilia and incest.
  • Under current Queensland laws bestiality carries a maximum seven-year sentence although, as is the case with most things, the situation differs in other Australian states and territories.
  • New South Wales - maximum 14 years 
  • Northern Territory - maximum 3 years 
  • South Australia - maximum 10 years 
  • Tasmania - maximum 21 years 
  • Victoria - maximum 5 years 
  • Western Australia - maximum 7 years 
  • Australian Capital Territory - maximum 10 years (although between 1988 and 2011 it was not a crime here) 
  • (DID YOU KNOW? Bestiality is still technically legal in 15 states of the U.S.A., and is permitted in Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Russia.)