What Happens at the Zoo Stays at the Zoo
Humans go to great lengths to help bring animals back from the brink of extinction: conserving enormous tracts of land, putting in place policies to protect them in the wild, and, of course, captive breeding programs. But it can take a lot of coaxing to get animals to reproduce in their manmade environs. Here’s a look at the strange and funny extremes keepers and conservationists have gone to to help three species procreate. Warning: we’re about to discuss various ways to collect semen and spur animals to get it on.
Kakapo parrots will mate with… anything?
Meet the kakapo, the most ridiculous bird you have never heard of. Weighing in at eight pounds, these hefty New Zealand parrots can’t fly. Instead, they waddle around the forest floor and climb trees with their sharp claws. Well camouflaged by their olive green feathers, kakapo’s defend themselves by freezing in place.
For all their charisma, kakapos are critically endangered. By 1995 their population had dropped to 55 birds due to human hunting and introduced predators like cats and dogs. Intensive conservation efforts have since raise that number to about 126 birds today.
Helping the kakapos reproduce is no easy task, as the species has, arguably, “the worst reproductive strategy in the animal kingdom.” Male kakapos attract the ladies by toddling up to hills and cliffs, digging a hole, and howling into it. Their low-frequency “booms” can carry for up to three miles, and it’s up to the females to come and find them. Lady kakapos aren’t interested unless they are well-fed, so they only mate when the rimu tree (their favorite food) produces a lot of fruit every few years. But heftier kakapo moms give birth to only male chicks, so too much food results in fewer females to carry on the species.
Frustrated male kakapos sometimes mate with inanimate objects, and one bird named Sirocco had a particular lust for people’s heads. Scientists tried to take advantage of Sirocco’s predilection by designing special headgear that a keeper would wear to collect his sperm for a breeding program. Unfortunately, Sirocco didn’t take a shine to the ejaculation helmet, but he still enjoys carousing with helmet-free heads.
Lonesome George, the century-old tortoise who just passed away in June, was unlucky in love. Found alone and sick on Pinta Island in 1972, this Galapagos giant tortoise was the last of his subspecies. For George, there were no more fish in the sea… or rather turtles on the island.
Conservationists desperately wanted George to pass on his genes, so they tried to set him up with females from related subspecies. But poor George didn’t quite know what to do, so his keepers taught him the language of love by manually stimulating him themselves.
After this intra-species sex-ed, George shared a pen with two females for 16 years. Although they did mate and lay eggs, unfortunately no little half-George tortoises were ever born
Pandas enjoy naughty television, too.
It’s hard to get in the mood in a zoo, far from home and with so many observers watching. But the reproductive success of captive animals, like giant pandas, is often crucial to keeping the species alive.