ADVISORY: This story includes biologically correct descriptions of sexual acts among zoo animals and some joking about the parallels with human relations.
"Tell me about the love life of a flamingo," I said.
That was the start of a journey through the L.A. Zoo occasioned by the zoo's Valentine's fundraiser "Sex and the City Zoo." In order, the event includes an illustrated lecture about the sex lives of animals, then a romantic candlelight dinner.
Judging from what I learned from Mike Dee, who'll be giving the lecture, it's a good thing they do the talk first, then dinner ... and they better serve a lot of wine. Dee has a long history at the zoo dating back to the 1960s. He was the senior keeper, then general curator, and worked on the Indian rhino breeding project, which saw the birth of the first Indian rhino at the L.A. Zoo.
The flamingo is actually about the most phlegmatic lover Dee showed me at the zoo. The male does a bit of a dance, then they breed, she lays an egg, and they raise the chick together. Dee says what's critical for flamingos is that "they have to be in a large number, groups of eight to 10, before they will actually breed and produce offspring."
Next , the mountain or woolly tapir looks like a cross between a bear and a Shetland pony, and when the male goes after a female in heat, he chases her and violently bites at her legs until she gives in. Dee says the male tapir is, shall we say, prodigious, and draws a lot of attention from visitors. Figuring out how they breed is vital because these animals — which, Dee says, love to be scratched under the chin — are severely endangered. "We were the first zoo to ever breed the mountain or woolly tapir, back in 1974," Dee says proudly.
Our next stop was to see an Indian rhino, which has been successfully bred by the L.A. Zoo several times. The female's offspring are now all over the globe, Dee says, and when I ask, "Do they ever call her?" He says, no, they can't use the phone. Rhino mating can be extremely violent, and the keepers have to perfectly gauge when they bring the male and female together to coincide with the few hours of her peak of estrus. When the male finally mounts the female, which is usually done in the water, they can stay coupled for up to an hour, during which time the male can ejaculate 70-plus times. Dee says it's a long and difficult journey for the sperm to fertilize the eggs, so there's a definite biological advantage to multiple ejaculations.
Our last stop was at the chimp enclosure, and Dee says he picked them because he wanted to show that what humans find attractive isn't what chimps find attractive. A female chimp advertises her readiness to breed with a pink and swollen anogenital region. "So when they're in full-blown estrus, every male chimp that's even close by is going to want to breed them." Dee says many zoo visitors think the huge protuberance means something is wrong with the animal.
So what does this expert on animal sexuality — he's an international authority — have to say about human relationships? What's the secret?
"You ply them with flowers," he says. "You send them little notes."
The other night, Dee says, he set out his and his wife's coffee cups and left a love note under hers. The next morning, she was up and gone already, but next to his "I love you" was a smiley face she'd drawn before she left.
(Photographer Gary Leonard, who accompanied me on my trip through the L.A. Zoo with Mike Dee, has been covering Los Angeles in photos since the 1960s, and his photos are a regular feature at LA Observed.)