When you get down to it, animals just do it Do the right thing: Wild, but not necessarily passionate, love-making goes on when the animals at the zoo get in the mood.

February 15, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it . . ."

-- Cole Porter

Roger C. Birkel showed up on the Johns Hopkins campus yesterday to talk about sex among the animals. A good thing, since they can't tell us much about it themselves.

This is literally the love that cannot speak its name -- except for an occasional grunt, squeal, or other feral exclamation of thrill or satisfaction.

Mr. Birkel, a specialist in primate behavior, runs the Baltimore Zoo. He loves zoos; they are his whole life. What they offer to the people who visit them, especially children, he describes as a wonderful "sense of safe danger." A poetic stroke, that, and appropriate since poets are always commenting on the subject at hand.

"Love is a kind of warfare," Ovid wrote, for the benefit of men and animals alike. No one could doubt it who's ever heard amorous cats in the night.

Zoos, said Mr. Birkel proudly, no longer take animals from the wild. They are bred in captivity. He has helped in the process, with artificial impregnation. He also had slides showing them breeding on their own. These were more interesting. The gazelles, fragile, white and rust-colored creatures, were clearly careful while at it; the zebras, thick as Clydesdales, more robustly passionate, clunky. Then there was the slide of the rhino, all alone, clearly in search of a lady rhino. No doubt about that.

"When this was planned," said Dr. Birkel with a straight face, "I had no idea this was Valentine's Day."

"Ha ha," said a few members of the audience, correctly dTC

construing this as the speaker's opening zinger. Though it didn't get much funnier than that, Mr. Birkel had a lot to say about animals at their most amorous.

Love and sex among animals is constantly studied by humans. (( That doesn't mean they understand it. The whole subject spawns many more questions than answers.

Why, for instance, do snow leopards breed readily in captivity? Why do cheetahs fail to? Cheetahs, Dr. Birkel said, "are all closely related to each other." Genetically, that is -- which suggests they are too deeply inbred to be fecund.

"We don't understand why some female cheetahs reject male cheetahs," he said. But he knows what to do about it: bring on another cheetah.

Then there are the larger questions. For instance, how do animals make love? The answer to that is very much as humans do: some are quick, some are -- how to put it? -- pokey. And, as it is with humans, size probably doesn't really matter, though there are a variety of positions on this question.

Antelopes (big) and elephant shrews (very little) complete the mating process in three seconds or less. (Elephant shrews do everything fast). But they are both languid compared to Japanese quails, who get the whole business over in a second or less. It's not certain whether that includes foreplay. Or if there is any foreplay.

Contrast that with the harlequin toads of Latin America. The byword in toad pillow talk is slow, if not easy. It goes like this: the male sneaks up behind the female. He grabs her. The female hops around a lot. The male hangs on. There is much reptilian huffing and puffing (hot stuff for a couple of cold-blooded animals). This can last for months.

It is not known whether they smoke afterward.

All this useful information has been gleaned from Mr. Birkel and his staff of astute curators at the zoo who discreetly observe these creatures in their tenderer moments, or seconds, as the case may be.

There's a lot to learn. What circumstances, for instance, will put a female snake in the mood? Most likely the length of daylight she is exposed to. A nice gift probably wouldn't help.

On the larger question of whether animals love, or experience affection in any way similar to human beings, science is stumped.

"We haven't been able to figure out what love is among humans. It's much more difficult in animals," says Joanne Oliva-Purdy, the zoo's curator of mammals.

But some of the same emotions are evident, she says, such as fear and jealousy.

"You certainly see animals, if their mate is associating with another of the opposite sex, you'll see that animal chasing away the other one. But whether they have the same thing going on in their minds that we do, that's another question."

Romantic people assume that some animals must be like humans because they mate for life, or appear to. Some animals do actually choose their mates, the way people do. But for the overwhelming majority of mammals, birds and reptiles, when it comes to mating and reproduction, any body will do -- as long as it's of the opposite sex and (usually) the same species.

Geese, cranes, penguins and some wild dogs stay together, sometimes for life. In this they appear to be emulating humans. More than one might think, since they also divorce, or switch mates, even fool around.

"Snow-geese do it. So do colonial birds which nest in colonies and rookeries," says Ms. Oliva-Purdy. "Herons and egrets down in Louisiana, if one partner is away, and another bird walks up to the nest, well . . ."

Maybe it's presumptuous to suggest that when animals behave this way or that they are imitating humans. Many of them, the birds in particular, have been around longer than people have. The prevalent theory is that birds evolved from dinosaurs. That would suggest that humans are behaving like them -- the birds, not the dinosaurs -- not the other way around.

And who could doubt it? Don't most male animals avoid commitment? Soon as they get what they want, don't they make themselves scarce?

The beasts!

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