Love and sex at the Oakland Zoo

Harry Santi, a docent at the Oakland Zoo, has been leading the zoo's Animal Amore tour every Valentine's Day for the past twelve years.

Harry Santi, a docent at the Oakland Zoo, has been leading the zoo's Animal Amore tour every Valentine's Day for the past twelve years.

“How would you like to have husbands who have testicles that weigh 14 percent of their body weight?” the tour guide asked a small group of women gathered at the Oakland Zoo on Friday.

He wasn’t talking about any sort of terrifying medical anomaly here. Harry Santi, 81, a docent at the Oakland Zoo, was referring to the tuberous bushcricket, a type of tiny katydid, and one of dozens of animals with unusual, peculiar, or fascinating sex lives that were highlighted at Oakland Zoo’s annual Animal Amore event for Valentine’s Day.

Last Thursday and Friday mornings, those curious about copulation in the animal kingdom, quirky breeding and unusual coupling rituals embarked on an adults-only classroom discussion and walking tour of the zoo, followed by drinks and refreshments Friday evening. The discussion and tour showcased the often-surprising ins and outs of reproduction and mating across a variety of species—from learning about tiger’s barbed penises (they induce ovulation in the female during mating), to lizards whose sex is determined by the temperatures they experience during embryonic development.

Humans aren’t the only species who can be late bloomers, adulterers, hermaphrodites, homosexual or even transgendered, said Santi, who has been leading Animal Amore for the past twelve years. The Galapagos tortoise takes 40 years to go through puberty, he said, and bison, elephants and lions are just three of the 1,500 species known to frequently exhibit homosexuality or bisexuality in the wild. Just like humans, even pair-bonded animals can cheat on their matesonly three to five percent of all mammalian species practice lifelong monogamy. “It’s natural, it’s part of creation,” Santi said referring to the animal kingdom’s vast sexual spectrum. “It’s just the way it works.”

The Oakland Zoo also had a love story of its own this Valentine’s Day. Last year, Nikko—one of the zoo’s white-handed gibbons—lost his mate, said Sarah Cramer, education specialist at the Oakland Zoo. Gibbons, a type of ape native to Southeast Asia, do mate for life, and after Nikko stopped vocalizing his usual morning calls and started showing other signs of mourning, zookeepers knew that they had to find him a new partner.

But finding a new mate for an animal in captivity isn’t so easy: there’s no guarantee that the stars will align and a connection will be made. Zookeepers have to look for similarly single animals at facilities across the country willing to travel for love–or rather, for zoos willing to transfer them. In December, they found Gladys, a blonde white-handed gibbon from the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas. “It’s like online dating,” Cramer said. “She’s single in Texas and looking to move out of her current exhibit.”

Once the two were introduced at the Oakland Zoo, Nikko was smitten. “They initiated affiliative behaviors, which is a fancy way of saying he would come over to her and give her a hug and move away, and she would groom him and then move away,” Cramer said. “It’s still a relatively new relationship.”

Zookeepers might have to play matchmaker at times, but many of the Oakland Zoo’s female species are on birth control, Santi said, to prevent new offspring that the zoo might not be able to accommodate. Some females raised in captivity, like the zoo’s chimpanzees, weren’t raised by their own mothers, Santi said, so they wouldn’t know how to nurse, protect or even hold their offspring should they become pregnant. But that doesn’t mean that nature doesn’t take its course—at times to the chagrin of protective human parents who are wandering the zoo with their own offspring.

“You never know what the kids are going to see,” Santi said. “We used to have camels that used to mate every day at the same time. You’d have to be deaf not to notice. Mothers would go running with their children.”

Before Smokey, one of the zoo’s African elephants, passed away in 2001, Santi remembers one particularly laughable moment in front of about 150 onlookers when the mood struck the members of the elephant pen. “You would have thought he had six legs,” he said, laughing, “if you know what I’m saying.”

Santi said he never thought he would be giving a sex tour at the zoo—or anywhere else, for that matter. But every Valentine’s Day, it reminds him of the intricacies of the natural world and what still remains to be understood. “Love, love changes everything: hands and faces, earth and sky,” he sang, crooning to the group from the musical “Aspects of Love.” And what’s even more intriguing to Santi is how many remarkable animal behaviors—which used to be assumed as simple functions of biology—are being chalked up more and more to bonding, companionship or complex social dynamics. “A lot of it has taken us a long time to recognize; we thought it had to be explained by something else,” he said. “How diverse nature is, it fascinates me.”

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