Love is in the air throughout the month of February, including at Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo. Courtship rituals here, like everywhere in the world, are wildly diverse. A male otter may bite the female’s nose to show he’s interested; swans engage in an elaborate dance, synchronizing their movements. Just like their human counterparts, there are animals that mate for life, like wolves, and some, like prairie dogs, whose entire mating season is only one hour long. What makes one species choose monogamy as the secret to survival, while others form a looser bond, coming together only to procreate?
“If we’re looking for inspiration in the animal kingdom, swans are a picturesque example of lifelong commitment,” explained Gregg Dancho, zoo director. “But some vultures mate for life, too,” he added, proving that love isn’t always pretty.
At the Zoo, lifelong lovers include wolf pairs and Howler monkeys. If you’re looking for examples in your own backyard, look no further than coyotes, barn owls, and bald eagles. Some of the monogamous species are together until death do they part, while others might separate only after a nesting failure.
Monogamy is relatively rare in the animal kingdom, with fewer than five percent forming lifelong bonds. As a survival plan, monogamy can be tricky. Males of many species are not designed for fidelity, so that sharing their genetic material is not dependent on a single mate. Where animals are monogamous, it is believed that the couple bond helps to ensure the survival of the young, because there are two parents to provide food and guard the nest.
Zoos are charged with animal conservation and species protection, which means that many, Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo included, are members of the Species Survival Plan (SSP). Developed in 1981, SSP helps ensure the survival of species that are threatened or endangered in the wild. SSP maintains a database of healthy and genetically diverse animals within the zoo community where it is believed that captive breeding programs assist the species’ chances of survival. As an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited facility, the Zoo engages in select breeding programs to ensure genetic diversity and species stability.
“Our breeding pairs include our North American River Otters, our Giant Anteaters, our Amur Leopards, and we hope, soon, our Amur Tigers,” Dancho said.
The Zoo recently received a new female Amur Tiger, Chang, in hopes of creating future offspring with the resident male tiger. Transfers between zoos are arranged in order to optimize breeding potential, keeping genetic diversity, animal age and health, and need for new members of the species as critical components in deciding who goes where. Some of the breeding programs are successful, with the birth of new young to support species survival, and some are not.
“Zoos offer much more than animals on display,” Dancho explained. “ The end goal of many SSP breeding programs is to possibly reintroduce animals to the wild.” Zoos have brought back several species from the brink of extinction, among them black-footed ferrets, California condors, red wolves, and bongos, a threatened African antelope.
Of course, love doesn’t always win the day. The goshawk female, for example, is much larger than her mate, and if things don’t go according to plan, she may kill him. Other murderous mates include the praying mantis and the female octopus. She may strangle the male with three of her eight legs and then have him for dinner—literally. Mating can be violent for other species, too, leading to injury, often unintended. Fortunately, artificial insemination has become more widespread.
There are animals that are not only endangered in the wild, but in zoos as well. Some species are in danger of becoming genetically extinct, which means that the population has post-reproductive females and inter-related family groups. Breeding programs like those at the Zoo help to ensure self-sustaining levels for endangered species. Having offspring and raising them is also an integral part of an animal’s social and mental wellbeing.
Successful breeding programs at the Beardsley Zoo have resulted in a baby Giant Anteater, Amur tiger cubs, Guinea hog piglets, Nigerian Dwarf goat kids, Red wolf pups, Golden Lion tamarins and North American River otter pups, among many others over the years, with some released to the wild.
For more information about Connecticut’s only zoo, visit www.beardsleyzoo.org.