Zoos Showcase Animals' Love Lives On V-Day
Offering a creative alternative to the traditional dinner-and-a-movie date, some zoos are hosting special Valentine's Day event this Saturday, exploring the world of animal mating and love. (istock photo)
There's love in the air this Valentine's Day, and it extends past human relationships, too. A host of various zoos across the country are putting on love-themed events tonight, showcasing the mating rituals of different wild animals. Some sweet talk is likely to seep its way into the dialogue, as well.
NEW YORK -- A box of chocolates and a bouquet of roses is sweet and all, but some couples craving a little bit of spice are turning to the animal kingdom for inspiration this Valentine's Day.
Zoos across the country are hosting love-themed events today, providing spectators with an intimate look into wild animals' mating habits.
In some cases, zoo animals' mating strategies can "relate to some relationship issues that humans face, too," said Rebbecca Hobbs, a post-doctoral researcher for the department of reproductive science at the Smithsonian Zoo, in Washington, D.C.
Couples at the "Woo at the Zoo" event may take note, for example, the relationship problems that plague Redback spiders. After mating, the males typically sacrifice themselves to the females for consumption, so "the female is occupied and won't think about mating with anyone else for a while," Hobbs said.
The lesson learned?
" 'She only wants me for my body,' " Hobbs said jokingly of the males' potential realization of being sexual pawns.
The Smithsonian's free event, which can host around 350 people, is lecture-hall based and has been sold out since last week.
Binder Park Zoo, in Battle Creek, Mich., hosts a similarly themed event, called "Zoorotica," providing couples with a more intimate look at the world of animal mating. A chance to catch some cheetahs doing the deed costs $50 per couple, but that price tag includes complimentary drinks and appetizers.
The tour, which also sold-out early in the Valentine's Day week, leads curious spectators through behind-the-scenes breeding areas, in which prospective mates are introduced.
"People might see some breeding action, and we will talk about conservation and why we want to reproduce certain animals," said Jenny Barnett, director of wildlife and conservation for the Battle Creek, Mich., zoo.
The female cheetahs have been known to be choosy, Barnett says, and are not likely to settle for any old male, even if they are feeling a little lonely.
"We'll have to just keep bringing one male in if the female doesn't like him, we'll bring him back out and keep on introducing a new one," Barnett said.
The event is only open to people over the age of 21, but is not X-rated, Barnett promises.
"You won't see anything that you wouldn't see in National Geographic," she explained.
Bashful visitors might want to politely look away, though, when encountering the well-endowed male tapirs, large mammals in the same family as the horse and rhinoceros, at the Minnesota Zoo's "Love Tour" this evening.
When carnal instincts fall short in the world of animal mating, zoos sometimes have to step in and take matters into their own hands.
The Association for Zoos and Aquariums, for example, keeps an online database of potential mates for zoo residents across the country.
"People think only humans are doing the whole online dating thing, but animals are in on it, too," said Karen Korpowski-Gallo, senior public affairs specialist for the Smithsonian Zoo.
If zoo matchmakers are not, in the end, able to secure a perfect catch for their animal clients, they rely on science to lend a helping hand.
Pressure is on for the Giant Pandas at the Smithsonian Zoo, as females only go into heat for a mere 24-to-48 hours every year. Zookeepers try to monitor their behavior, as well as the females' hormone levels, to predict when this will occur. Still, they can only do so much to seal the deal for the bears.
"We put the female and the male together and let them try mating themselves, but they were just not that good at it," Hobbs said. "They wouldn't get in the right position, or the female would get bored and just lay there and the male would stumble over her."
The solution was artificial insemination -- the method has proved effective, as evidenced by the zoo's 2-year-old cub conceived in a test tube.
Back in Michigan, a similar scenario has played out at the Binder Park Zoo, where a 550-pound Aldabra Giant Tortoise struggles to make it work with his 340-pound lady friend.
"He just doesn't put it in the right place and can't figure it out," Barnett said. "It shouldn't be a problem.'
Artificial insemination might also provide a much-needed resolution to the tumultuous sex lives of Clouded leopards.
It's a bit of an abusive situation at the Smithsonian Zoo, Hobbs says.
"The males are very aggressive and might actually maim or kill a female if they are placed together," she said.
In the wild, the significantly smaller females would be able to climb tree branches to escape their angered lovers, if need be. Now in captivity, however, they have to adjust to the changing modern tide of manufactured reproduction.
True love, though, still weaves its way into the circuit of the animal kingdom.
Nearly 90 percent of birds are monogamous, Hobbs says, referring specifically to the Wandering Albatross, a large sea bird.
"Once they find their mate within the first few years, they will remain with that mate for the next 60," she explained.
Even though the birds spend the majority of their time at sea, they return back each year to a designated mating colony. There they perform elaborate courting rituals and locate their partner with classic bird-calls.
At the Minnesota Zoo, visitors will also be exposed to the more sensitive side of love and familial life; they will meet the Golden Lion Tamarins -- small, orange monkeys that rely on the males to tend to the children.
Aside from chocolate covered strawberries, the adult-friendly evening may provide a few lessons on life and love, says Korpowski-Gallo.
"It just gives people a chance to take a break from the regular dinner-and-a-movie affair and try something new," she said. "There are a lot of great anecdotes and plenty to talk about over the water cooler the next day."
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