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Animal roleplay is popular in BDSM culture as a form of subjugation or humiliation, and is often referred to as petplay.
The origins of animal roleplay and petplay are probably various and diverse, again depending upon the participants involved. However, its origins are certainly influenced by costuming, fiction, myth and legend, roleplay and psychodrama in their various aspects. Some of the earliest published images of animal play (especially pony play) are to be found in the work of John Willie, primarily in BIZARRE magazine published from 1948 to 1959. The first commercial manifestation of this fetish was created by Simon Benson, the founder of the Petgirls website.
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Non-sexual animal roleplay, or therianthropy, was a common and integral part of ritual in many tribal cultures both in recent and likely prehistoric times, where a member (or members) of the tribe would take the role physically and often spiritually of an animal that was either revered or hunted. Examples of the former include many of the American Indian tribes and Arctic native peoples. Examples of the latter are evidenced by cave paintings. In 1911, Julia Tuell photographed the last Animal Dance ("Massaum") performed by the Northern Cheyenne of Montana.
Some consider costume play, or cosplay, of anime catgirls to be a form or look of pet play as well, because these are generally young female characters that have the combined aspects of females and cats (generally a human girl with cat ears, a tail, fangs and a propensity for catlike affection or curiosity). Examples would be Cat Girl Nuku Nuku, Pink from Dragon Pink and others. Some superheroes, heroines, and villains could also be classified as related to pet play, such as DC Comics's Wildcat, Catwoman, and Vixen, Marvel's Tigra, Man-Wolf and Black Cat, or even Nastassja Kinski's Irena Gallier in the 1982 film Cat People (a remake of the 1942 Simone Simon film), and Miss Kitty from the Brendan Fraser movie Monkeybone. All involve animal qualities taken on by a human. Some would even count the enactment or spiritual belief in therianthropy (werewolves, werecats, etc.) as falling under human animal roleplay or transformation play as well.
Like much of erotic play and roleplay, animal roleplay in an erotic or relational context is entirely defined by the people involved and by their mood and interests at the time of play. It ranges from the simple imitation of a vocal whinnying of a horse to the barking, panting or playful nudging of a puppy, or playful behaviour of a kitten, to crawling around on all fours and being fed, or petted, by hand. (In the latter instance, its motives may be similar to those of ageplay, i.e. taking on a role that one feels spiritually appropriate or which allows for nurturing, and a change from usual roles in everyday life). To the greater extremes of dressing up as a pony in modified horse tack, masks, prosthetics and temporary bondage based body modification (such as binding the forearms to the upperarms and/or the calves to the thighs).
Public participation in human animal roleplay is varied. A couple could inconspicuously role-play a silly but loving pet play scene in public, but it would look like one partner is merely stroking the other's neck innocently to the casual observer. In the case of some BDSM fetishists, one partner may wear a dog collar with a leash attached.
The reasons for playing such a character or animal can vary as much as the actual physical manifestations and intensity of the play. Some people enjoy being able to "cut loose" into a different, or more dynamic personality (e.g., Were-creatures or Catgirls; see other variations). In some cases, pet play is seen as a loving, quiet cuddling time where there is no need for verbalizations and the simple act of stroking, rubbing and holding the other partner is satisfying or reassuring in and of itself for those involved. For others, there may be a spiritual side to it. Some feel closer to their animal totem, while others may identify with something akin to a deeper side or part of their own psyche (see: Therianthropy). For still others, there is the experience of power exchange setup in a context or structure which they can accept. Clearly, again, it depends on the people involved and what they bring to it or take from it.
Additionally, some cases could be considered a type of animal transformation fantasy. They can have strong elements of exhibitionism, be totally enjoyed in the privacy of the home, or lie somewhere between either boundary. While not widespread, erotic human-animal roleplay is still enjoyed by a sizable number of people. However, it is still primarily identified with BDSM practice. Though commonly misinterpreted as being associated with furry or other alternative lifestyle activities, that is generally not the case though some instances may exist.
Autozoophilia is sexual arousal that depends on acting out or imagining one's self as an animal. Paraphilic interests that involve being in another form have been referred to as erotic target location errors (ETLEs), and autozoophilia would represent an autoerotic form of zoophilia.
It should be pointed out that each type of play can focus on a certain "strength" of an animal character. Pony play often involves the practice and training that a horse owner or trainer would put their horse through to learn how to walk, canter, etc., as modified for human limbs. Puppy play often can involve BDSM related discipline. Cow Play often involves fantasies of lactation and impregnation. The usual limits of safe, sane and consensual apply to roleplay as much as any other activity between humans who accept and respect their partner's interests and limits. For most, this does not include bestiality.
Note: Just because one partner is playing the "pet" does not necessarily make them the passive or submissive play partner in the scene. For example, if the form of pet play is for the meek and timid wife to "transform" into a werewolf or mischievous anime catgirl, she may take the upper hand and dominate the partner. Again, how the play is interpreted is entirely up to the people involved.
Some people believe that they have certain animal 'instincts' and through animal roleplay can let them out. This is especially true in the BDSM communities, where some people 'live' as their chosen animal 24/7. This type of mentality goes beyond roleplay and becomes a full lifestyle for the parties involved. There are also 'hybrids'. These are humans who live part-time as one type of animal, and part-time as another. This is usually determined by the situation.
There seems to be a growing trend among the BDSM scene in animal roleplay, especially pup and kitten play. Playing the role of a pup or kitten is one of giving over complete control over to another, while the 'Master or Handler' expects only unconditional love and obedience from his/her animal.
One group, the LA Ponies and Critters Club, takes the community idea of BDSM animal roleplay further by staging a mock foxhunt in local forested areas. These events bring together ponyplayers, puppyplayers and their respective humans for a cooperative, community bonding activity. One of the canine players volunteers to be the “fox” and marks a trail in the forest. The other puppyplayers form the pack of “hounds” that search out the fox and bark/howl to bring the ponyplayers and their “riders” to capture the “fox”.
A documentary film Pony Passion was produced by British pony play club De Ferre in 2003 showing their club's activities and Born in a Barn, a 2005 documentary film, depicted the lives of several pony-play enthusiasts.
Puppy play, or dog play, is where at least one of the participants acts out canine mannerisms and behaviors, it is sometimes associated with leather culture. The dominant role is taken by a "Handler", "Trainer", "Master", or in the case of someone who still identifies as canine, an "alpha". The submissive may be considered a "pup" or a "dog". Unlike other forms of animal roleplay, it is not uncommon for two or more pups to play together as equals, fight for dominance, or play where one is clearly the "alpha". Puppy play is often about being playful, mischievous, and instinctive. Many human puppies like to simplify their desires and motivations as they embrace the side of themselves that acts solely on instinct. In relation to other BDSM play, a "puppy" who is "unowned" or "uncollared" can be referred to as a "stray". Other elements rooted in BDSM play involve bondage and restriction with collars, leashes, cages, and hoods, the submissive's hands are often covered in mitts, both sexual and non-sexual services are requested, and "training" may take place in order to teach commands. The submissive may be asked to bark, kiss/lick the dominant's foot/shoe, and eat like a dog.
In kitten-play the person assumes the role of a pet that keeps some independence and - as part of the fantasy - might retaliate against the partner trying to tame him or her.