Animal Magnetism: 'Sex at the Zoo' offers an atypical Valentine's day date

At the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, some residents—of which there are more than 1,500—are so copious in their copulating they’ve earned a bit of a reputation, such as Lou, a sitatunga, who was transported to Baltimore from San Diego due to his reliable relations with the ladies. (But hey, he’s discreet. Sort of.)

You can learn about his love life and that of his neighbors during “Sex at the Zoo,” on Feb. 13, just in time for Valentine’s Day. Urging couples to “ditch the typical dinner date and do something really wild this Valentine’s,” the Zoo is offering, according to its website, an opportunity to “discover the secrets, scandals and shockingly true facts about animal courtship.” (Admission is $80 for one, $150 for couples.)

Like many a romantic evening, good food and drink is included. But when it comes to the wooing—suffice it to say most of the zoo’s inhabitants just get down to business, which can be, well, funky.

When the female sitatunga, an African antelope, is in heat, “she’ll urinate, and the male will come over and sample the urine to taste it to know if she’s in estrus,” says Amy Demchak, a 15-year zoo employee, who will regale visitors with many animal anecdotes that evening. “Then she’ll submit to him. She’ll lay on the ground and then you know breeding is going to happen.” Demchak has spent the last two years as area manager for the African Watering Hole and Polar Bear Watch, so she knows her sitatungas.

Employees keep estrus logs for most of the female animals to track when they’re in heat, she says, and “it’s based on behaviors, so we know when to breed for different animals. It’s a big deal getting animals together for breeding.” Demchak adds that zoos across the country coordinate to figure out where animals can be shipped for breeding purposes. “It’s pretty intense actually.”

Audiences eat up the titillating tales, Demchak says, and the talk about submission inevitably brings up references to “Fifty Shades of Grey.” But really, in much of the animal kingdom and whatever the foreplay, there are examples where the female has control of when—and whether or not—sex is going to happen.

During a brief courtship, the female sitatunga will let the male approach her and then run off about five to 10 feet ahead, “almost like flirting or teasing him,” she says. “The male is always following her around. He doesn’t really care about food. He doesn’t care about the other male sitatungas.”

Eventually the female sitatunga lets the male mount her and the actual act takes a few seconds. “They might do that a few times that day, then they hang out for a few months ignoring each other, till she gives birth,” says Demchak. But when “there’s another female in estrus he’s like ‘Oh, hi, who are you?’” Demchak laughs. “The grass is always greener, you know.”

Demchak supervises six animal keepers, who in turn look after more than 50 animals in her area. They keep records of bodily functions, feed, administer medication, clean, and inspect poop for 10 sitatungas, four zebras, two ostriches, two leopards, seven tortoises, scads of African bird species, two ravens, two arctic foxes, two rhinos, an eagle, and a female polar bear, who, Demchak explains, is equipped with “delayed implantation.”

“They breed in the spring, and the sperm will go to the egg but it won’t implant [within] the female until her body knows the conditions are right,” Demchak says, meaning when the bear is not under stress, the climate is right, and food is abundant.

Then there’s the cheetah.

Brian Badger, a cheetah specialist, will also be speaking at “Sex at the Zoo,” making a special stop here during his U.S. tour as Cheetah Conservation Fund emissary, traveling from where he’s stationed in Namibia. “She’s not like a normal cat, she brings herself into heat,” he says. Referring to “induced ovulators,” or animals that don’t ovulate cyclically but based on genital stimuli, he says the female cheetahs choose their own mates and have sex on their terms.

Female cheetahs, he adds, are solitary animals that live, hunt, and raise cubs entirely on their own. It’s the female that “clicks the ‘like,’” if you want to compare it to Facebook, he jokes. “It’s empowering females really,” he says. “And the male’s got one job, and he’s got to do it right. She’ll get together with him maybe a week or so, and then she’ll disappear off into the sunset, and she won’t see daddy cheetah again. He’s done his bit. That’s kind of the end of the conversation really.”

But it’s the beginning of that conversation that is truly remarkable, Badger says. To locate a mate, female cheetahs use what is called a play tree. “They’ll jump up in it and defecate in it and urinate in it and spray in it,” he says. “They’ll scratch it and they’ll leave their mark. It’s a communication point.” She’ll do this within range of a group, or a “coalition” of about four male cheetahs, and often the males are siblings.

“It’s very much like Tinder,” Badger says. “They’ll go and leave their status whether anyone’s interested or not. That’s the first point of contact. And because again the females are smart, she’s not going to [simply] go over to a coalition of males because she might be rejected. So she’ll leave her status and go back in a few days and see whether the males are responding to it.” Badger says if the males also spray, defecate, urinate, and mark it, “That’s the kind of mutual ‘like’ if you will.”

Next the female cheetah makes her presence known visibly and moves into range. “And hopefully the lead male—though it’s not as clear-cut as say the lions,” Badger says, “because with the lion it’s kind of obvious he’s the boss, he’s the all powerful. Whereas, with the [dominant] cheetah in a coalition, he’s more like a supervisor or a general manager. He’s just there to keep things ticking along. And it’s him that will break away from the group and meet her on mutual ground. It’s not exactly the most romantic date in the world. It’s kind of strictly business.”

After some brief courtship and flirting “because you know the males, they need a bit of guidance, bless ’em,” Badger says. “You know what we’re like. She just kind of wants to get the job done because she wants to get out of there.”

The male cheetah will have “absolutely nothing” to do with raising the cubs, which lasts about 15 to 18 months.

“If he gives healthy young, then the female might go back to him in about two years,” Badger says. “Because he’s got one job, and if he does the job well, then he gets a repeat order.” 

But only if she-cheetah clicks “like.” 

“Sex at the Zoo” takes place at the Maryland Zoo, on Saturday, Feb. 13, at 6 p.m. For Tickets and more information, visit marylandzoo.org.

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