5 Things Nobody Tells You About Breeding Endangered Animals
For all of my adult life, I've worked breeding rare and exotic animals in the zoo community. While some people have heard of the Species Survival Plan (SSP) before, not too many realize how it works. Here's a hint: There are way more animal boners than a reasonable person is comfortable with.
We Are Constantly Masturbating Animals
I've sat through entire lectures discussing the proper way to give a crocodile a hand job (answer: very carefully), and I was once assigned to a team responsible for jerking off cranes. It's not that we're just really enthusiastic about animal wangs; for rarer crocs, artificial insemination makes more sense than traditional breeding, because there's less chance of them murdering each other. Zoo animals kill intended mates all the time.
"He's the one that begged for oral."
The danger in giving crocodiles an old-fashioned is that to do it, you must first reach up inside them (their dick is in a pouch) to gain dong access. Some crocodiles don't mind, but others hate the intrusion. So to aid in the process, zookeepers sometimes build these little structures to help expose the genitals and aid the collection process. That's right: Crocodiles have personal dick-ramps.
As for the cranes, well, look up videos of any long-legged birds trying to mate with each other. The male has to leap onto the female's back in order to press their ... bird vents together. It's a messy process, essentially trying to scissor on stilts. Cranes at zoos are mostly kept in big open-air exhibits. To keep them in there, we have to stop them from flying. There are two ways to do this: wing clipping done every month or so, or pinioning, which permanently removes a section of the wing when the bird is very, very young. Both methods mess up the bird's balance and make it unable to align those "sex vents" (dibs on the German post-industrial band name) properly.
There's a whole bright galaxy of other reasons that artificial sperm collection makes more sense than natural sex in the zoological world: it can be dangerous to the animal's health; some critters are just bad at mating (do they make tiny fedoras for cranes?); and shipping a whole animal is much riskier than just giving that gorilla a lover's handshake and FedEx-ing the aftermath.
"That was great. Anyway, I got a lot of tourists to flash my butthole at tomorrow, so ... I'll call you."
Coaxing Animals into Sex Is a Comedy of Errors
One zoo I worked at in the South had a male gorilla that was ready to find a mate. Since zoos tend to keep apes within their family groups, we had to get him a match from another zoo. Like every solid relationship you've ever had, it first started with a fecal test to make sure neither had parasites. Once they passed that critical poop-compatibility test, we got them together. Since we can't rely on love at first sight, we had huge teams of trainers and vets armed with tranquilizer guns on standby in case things got dicey.
Like many young awkward men, this ape wasn't good with females. Like many young awkward men who aren't good with females, he became aggressive toward them. He flipped out and attacked one of the girls. Not badly -- just enough that she needed stitches. We tried putting them together a few more times, but the result was always the same. Eventually, our un-fly friend was deemed too antisocial to ever find love, and we shipped him off to a bachelor's home for abusive gorillas. It's the furry equivalent of a frat house, except nobody ever gets laid. Man, did that uptight dean hate their ape-shenanigans.
"If you jerks can't play nice, you can peel your own bananas."
It goes both ways, though: We had a female blue-bellied roller with really good genes, and we were trying to maintain the species. Her family hadn't been bred a lot, so she'd have been good for genetic diversity. They brought her into this nice big aviary with a male, and she went right for him and beat the tar out of him. Pecking, wing slapping, ramming ... and not like the sexy kind of pecking and wing slapping you remember from all those bird pornos. It's likely she'd imprinted on a human right after hatching and simply had no sexual attraction to other birds. Or perhaps male birds of her species rely too heavily on sleazy pick-up lines and negging.
Some birds are plenty into sex, but only if it's a full-blown group effort: Flamingos normally breed in giant colonies you can see from the air -- just one enormous avian Burning Man of moist, squawking coitus. They're used to breeding solely while surrounded by other birds, so we had to set up mirrors to make them think they were boning in a giant room full of friends. Part of my job description that day was to craft an illusory flamingo orgy.
We switched to mirrors after the sex doll technique proved too costly.
When I was an intern, there was a monkey pair that was having trouble breeding. Whenever the male was about to finish, he would raise one side of his body up in sort of a celebratory wave and pull his dick out and cum all over her back. That's a great visual for monkey porn, but not so great for propagating the species. The keepers really wanted to breed him, but we couldn't stop the celebratory orgasm end-zone dance. So we got him a porn video of monkeys that didn't pull out in the hopes that he would learn what he was doing wrong. I was only there a few months -- I didn't see if it was implemented -- but the important thing is that you now know that monkey cream pie pornography is a thing, and that factoid will never leave your brain-space.
Cute Little Baby Animals Are a Serious Problem
The only thing worse for a zoo than a dead animal is a dead baby animal, which is why the newborns are hidden behind the scenes until we can be relatively assured of their safety. And no, zoos are not as secure as you think: We had to keep baby monkeys locked inside until they were a few months old because snakes would crawl into their outdoor exhibit and chow down. We couldn't even kill the snakes when we caught them, because a bunch of zookeepers pitchforking rat snakes would net awful press pretty much everywhere but Ireland.
The worst part is when they hiss "Zoological immunity!" like Lethal Weapon 2 villains.
In the wild, offspring are a huge investment of energy and time, so if animals think their kid isn't going to survive for whatever reason, many will devour their own children to reclaim some of those nutrients and try again. If you think your parents did a crappy job, well, at least they never tried to repo your body for its vitamins. We had one mother beaver that was so well-known for eating her children that we wouldn't even announce them until they hit a certain age and we were sure she couldn't fit them in her mouth anymore.
One of our meerkats had six pups. When another meerkat escaped, it ran past the outside of the holding den, and the new mother ate half of her children -- just on the off chance the other meerkat might get the same idea -- before we could stop the fuzziest Greek tragedy you've ever seen.
Not counting the lemur that blinded himself after discovering he had mated with his mom.
Animal Birth Control Has the Same Issues as Human Birth Control
Zoos are weirdly influenced by the concept of a nuclear family. People want to see one mother, one father, and a couple of kids, regardless of the species and their mating habits. Zoos still tend to keep one male and one female lion together, despite what we all know happens in the wild, where one adult male can have a whole harem. It's just easier to tell little Susie that they are mommy and daddy lions, rather than open the discussion up to alternate sexualities.
Although I'm sure a few of the Utah zoo-goers are down with a little lion polygamy.
But even if your captive animals live well together in their artificially enforced familial units, you can't exactly have them mating whenever they want. Zoos only have so much space; hence, there's animal birth control. When I was an undergrad, I assisted a researcher who was looking at subdermal birth control for Japanese macaques. Some primates know there's something off about their implants, so they rip them out, and if you don't notice, you get surprised with monkey babies, which, for the record, is one of the worst surprise gifts this side of hepatitis.
At least hep C can't fling its poop at you.
Birth control is a lot easier with birds because you can just remove the egg, but zoo professionals have a sort of unspoken policy if an egg is beyond a certain age, because pulling it is the equivalent of late-term abortion. This extends even to eliminating feral pest pigeons: If we couldn't be absolutely sure the egg wasn't more than four days old, we couldn't destroy it. They were pests. The zoo knew it needed them gone, and yet there was still this nagging moral quandary about it.
The whole birth control thing is nearly as much of a clusterfuck in zoos as it is in people. You've probably heard about the Copenhagen zoo that euthanized a giraffe. Well, that all happened because they don't believe in animal birth control due to health concerns and the (understandable) idea that denying animals sex is cruel and unnatural. So they did what they thought was best in order to let their zoo animals live something much closer to a normal life ... they just had to be willing to ignore the crowds of protesters and step into the ring with one of the most contentious social issues in history to do it.
The Romantic Drama Is Endless, Brutal, and Tragic
Animal love triangles are slightly less sexy than those in Twilight (only slightly, though). We had one female Asian starling that was obsessed with a male; the only problem was that he already had a mate. He'd ignore her season after season and produce offspring with his current partner until, for one season, he decided to shack up with both females. It was going great for a while, just livin' the old Three's Company dream, but whenever an egg would hatch two or three days later, the chick would disappear. For a while we thought it was one of the larger birds raiding the nest. Then we realized the mistress female was taking the babies (even her own) out of the nest and feeding them to the other birds. Not killing them herself, just dropping them off in front of the larger birds' grounds, baiting them to commit her crimes. If they ever make a movie out of this compelling drama, I sure hope Glenn Close is comfortable playing a bird.
"I AM NOT GOING TO BE IGNORED!"
The soap opera dynamic was everywhere: We had fruit doves that would take turns sitting and feeding, but at some point during incubation the male would forget his partner and suddenly attack her. Boom: evil mate and amnesia -- two soap opera cliche birds with one stone. When the eggs did hatch, the show got dark ... sweeps week dark.
The way our cages were set up, the breeding stall for the parents had access to the outside aviary. One of the doves' young daughters couldn't make direct contact with Daddy, but she could see him all the time, and eventually she fell in love with him. The flirting got so bad that Daddy stopped sitting on his next brood of eggs so he could watch his own child's sexy fan dance. Mom wasn't innocent in all this, either: She was infatuated with an imperial pigeon who weighed 10 times as much as her. She would often flirt with the pigeon when not locked in with her mate. The whole family was one well-timed sex tape away from having their own reality show on E!
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