PSYCHIATRISTS have established a link between paedophiles and the growing number of unexplained attacks on horses, which often involve sexual mutilation.
German scientists are to carry out the first full-scale study into the attacks, which have baffled police and animal protection groups for more than a decade.
The breakthrough has come after one of the first convictions in Germany for "horse-ripping", which has enabled psychiatrists to analyse the attacker's motivation. The convicted man had a history of abusing children. Similar lines of inquiry have not been possible in Britain, because no one has yet been convicted for attacking horses in this way.
The three-year study is being backed by the British arm of the International League for the Protection of Horses, which hopes it will help secure convictions in this country.
The paedophile theory is also to be discussed at the first conference on horse mutilation, in Germany next month. The conference will be attended by psychologists and police involved in tracking horse-attackers.
"Horse-ripping" was the subject of Peter Shaffer's play Equus, in which a boy called Alan is examined by a psychiatrist to discover why he uses an iron spike to put out the eyes of the horses he loves.
In Britain, police and animal experts have blamed fertility cults, rival horse owners and sadists for the attacks.
The worst spate was between 1983 and 1993, when more than 160 horses were stabbed and sexually mutilated.
The worst-affected county was Hampshire although attacks were also reported in Humberside, Yorkshire and parts of Scotland.
Hampshire police launched "Operation Mountbatten", after scores of attacks, but it was shut down 18 months later without anyone being charged. The Metropolitan Police also set up an equine crime unit but this was disbanded in 1996 because of a lack of funds.
Alexandra Schedel-Stuppich, a biologist and a horse-breeder, is to carry out the research into the mutilations with the help of a psychologist and German police. In Germany, the attacks are on epidemic levels with more than 300 crimes and 89 horse deaths since 1992.
"There has been little research because it is a taboo subject," said Ms Schedel-Stuppich. "We were lucky in that we were able in this case to catch up with one of the people involved in these attacks and we could research his history.
"He had been an abuser of children and had a sexual motive for abusing horses. Little girls give a lot of love to horses and there is therefore a psychological connection with children. Paedophiles thrive on that tenderness shown by children and animals but there is also a sadistic side in that it gives them power. It's time we got the experts at one table to tackle the problem."
One speaker at the conference is expected to be Ted Barnes, a member of the Metropolitan Police Equine Unit for 10 years. Mr Barnes, now a field officer for the ILPH, is convinced there is a link between paedophilia and attacks on horses.
"There are so many similarities between the two crimes," he said. "Horses and children are beautiful and vulnerable. Both are innocent, cannot consent and have a special trust with adult humans.
"I've had a couple of instances as well where people have gone on from mutilating horses to abusing children."
His efforts to trap the horse mutilators have been frustrated by a lack of information about the attackers. He wants police in Britain to follow the example of their German counterparts and refer cases to the ILPH after investigation.
"There has never been a central point for information to be collated," he said. "That is a crucial mistake and it is why we know so little.
"It is a very difficult crime to investigate because of the sexual taboo. It's not the sort of thing people would brag about to their mates down the pub.
"I thought it would take up to two years to solve these attacks. It's now looking like it will take at least five years."
A spokeswoman for the ILPH said the research project is welcomed by horse owners and animal protection groups.
"It's just a pity it's not been done before in this country," she added. "We will be closely watching what the Germans come up with and if a link can be established with paedophilia then it will help police over here to tackle the crime and put a stop to it."
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