Of course, I must admit the dating pool is extremely limited for most of the animals at the zoo, and the art of romance has probably not evolved to the same level of sophistication in elk, for example, as it has with humans. But ultimately, at least in most of the animal kingdom, the art of romance is the foundation for the business of reproduction.
In the case of endangered species, reproductive activity in very few individuals often determines the future existence of that species. And it is up to zoo curators and animal collection managers to do their best to keep these endangered species surviving into the foreseeable future.
In previous columns, I have outlined how much effort zoos expend trying to match up the largest numbers of pairs for breeding. Zoos maintain the largest possible populations and many zoos act cooperatively and send individual animals across the country (and sometimes the world) to increase their numbers. In doing so, they are able to maintain genetic diversity to ensure healthy populations of future generations.
As the director of the WCS’s Queens Zoo, I probably spend hundreds of hours each year arranging animal pairings to protect the survival of endangered species. Working on this for many years, there is one thing that I am constantly reminded of - the animals don’t read the memos.
We can spend months arranging the optimum pairing between two endangered thick-billed parrots. We may spend a lot of money to ship one of these parrots from California to New York, run health screenings to ensure that it arrives healthy and ready to meet its mate, only to have the perspective happy couple meet and decide they hate each other.
Of course, over the years I have learned a thing or two about romance in the animal kingdom. Sometimes a way to get a couple of birds interested in each other is through jealousy. If there is a perspective pair of birds that are uninterested in each other, sometimes putting a potential rival, such as an extra male, in a nearby area will prove helpful. When that bird starts to display interest in the female, the previously uninterested male suddenly sees his perspective mate through new eyes and courtship is kindled.
Other times, the adage “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” applies to animal couples.
Some humans can relate to the idea that if you keep males and females together all the time, romance is hard to come by. But if you separate them from each other for a period of time, viola! Cupid’s arrow may find its mark!
I am not recommending any of these romantic solutions be attempted by people. If I knew the answers to questions of romance in humans, I would probably make a lot more money than I do now. Besides, I have enough difficulties trying to play matchmaker for all in the zoo collection. I will leave the people problems to Dr. Phil.
Scott Silver is the director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Queens Zoo.