Survival of the sexiest

Species Survival Plan coordinators help Sacramento Zoo animals find appropriate mates from zoos around the country

Mulac, a young male jaguar, was brought to the Sacramento Zoo as a mate for Tina, the 5-year-old female.

Mulac, a young male jaguar, was brought to the Sacramento Zoo as a mate for Tina, the 5-year-old female.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Tina, a 5-year-old female jaguar, pads from her holding pen into her exhibit space at the Sacramento Zoo. She turns her back, with her beautiful black rosette markings, to an audience of awed elementary school students, grasps the bare bones of a deer in her enormous paws and starts chewing at the leg joint.

Slinking around the perimeter of the space, her new companion, Mulac, leaps gracefully onto a large rock and crouches, watching. The young male is so intent on studying Tina that he’s missed his own bones, which lie a little ways off.

When Tina tires of her deer, she moves on to Mulac’s, and he jumps down, slinks over and takes up her leftovers.

It may be hard to recognize, but this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Tina remains dominant in her own territory, but she’s old enough to be interested in mating, so she’s accepted Mulac, who’s still a year away from maturity. As he ages, he’ll notice that she rubs on things, rolls over and exposes her belly, and uses other signs to show him that she’s interested in more than just a friendship.

If the many handlers and administrators who are involved in this romance are right, the pair of endangered jaguars will produce between one and four cubs in their first litter, the results of more than 20 years of policy changes for zoos nationwide.

To avoid capturing more and more wild animals to add to their exhibits, and to keep from weakening the genetic health of future offspring, zoos have had to develop their own carefully coordinated endangered-species dating services. Mulac and Tina are more than just a cute couple. They’re responsible for the future of captive jaguars.

For animals like Tina and Mulac to meet, the Sacramento Zoo couldn’t work in a vacuum. Instead, the American Zoological and Aquarium Association (AZA) had to build a network of zoos nationwide that were willing to lend out their animals and accept other animals based on the recommendations of an elite group of Species Survival Plan coordinators—the matchmakers of the zoo business.

At the Sacramento Zoo, Susan Healy plays matchmaker for the thick-billed parrots. She keeps a studbook that details the history of every captive bird, including where it was born, what zoos it has visited and who its family members are.

Healy keeps this information up-to-date, and every zoo that wants to host an exhibit has to ask her for birds. Because zoo resources are limited, the number of thick-billed parrots in captivity is kept to less than 200. With so many endangered species vying for space and resources, the AZA and Healy decide who breeds and who doesn’t. To control the numbers, Healy says, handlers can take away eggs or limit the nesting space in the exhibits.

The Sacramento Zoo opened its own new thick-billed parrot exhibit this spring. To ensure a healthy flock and one that would provide data on how the birds behave in the wild, Healy picked a variety of pairs, which have been installed in a space big enough for them to fly around and to “flock up” in, as Healy says.

Now, a colony of bright, green-winged redheads squawks loudly at all hours, amusing visitors who can’t imagine a time when these gorgeous birds used to migrate north from Mexico into the southwestern United States. The only parrots native to North America, the thick-billed parrots are now the local comedians. They swing by their beaks from the rungs of their cage like a goofy collection of carved pendulums, exasperating Healy, who has to field calls from visitors who fear the birds have gotten stuck. Nope, she says. They’re just silly.

Though Healy’s responsibilities could begin and end with her own birds, the AZA also demands that species coordinators manage a plan for habitat preservation in the wild. In other words, because there are only a couple thousand wild thick-billed parrots left, and because they exist in Mexico, Healy shares her data on mating habits, diets, disease, etc. with field researchers who are trying to protect the wild birds. She’s also involved in funneling money to Mexico so that the birds’ last remaining territories won’t be destroyed.

“The rent we pay is used to pay people not to log,” Healy said.

Because the birds are matched into perfect couples, why couldn’t they breed normally? Why couldn’t the baby birds be released to replenish the wild population? In a perfect world, Healy admitted, that is what would happen. But there are no planned releases for thick-billed parrots.

“It would be expensive and time-consuming,” Healy said. The birds would have to be trained to find their own food, recognize and avoid predators, and mix with the existing population. And how would they be protected from disease? Plus, with the destruction of habitat, releasing more animals into the wild could threaten both the released birds and the birds already there. The limited habitat can support only so many individuals.

And captivity does have its rewards. Thick-billed parrots, which usually mature at about 5 years old, sometimes mature faster in captivity because they’re not concerned with foraging for food and avoiding predators. In captivity, the thick-billed parrot occasionally can act like a sexually precocious teenager.

Though some of the parrots already are pairing up and turning their thoughts to nesting, other endangered species are pining for partners. In a small cage, two male golden-bellied mangabeys stare at visitors and bare their sharp teeth and brilliant bellies, which are the rich yellow color of fool’s gold.

Less fortunate than both the jaguars and the parrots, the mangabeys are waiting together for local matchmaker Leslie Field to find them perfect mates. Though two males can get along fairly well in one space, one of the males has launched something that looks like a form of protest. He has the unpleasant habit of intimidating docents by baring his teeth threateningly and pairing that with some absent-minded masturbating.

Field said that, with less than 100 captive mangabeys in the United States and with those being divided between six species and sub-species, there aren’t always perfect male-to-female ratios. She tries to look ahead. Within three to five years, she expects to transfer one of her boys to a zoo with two or three girls. Another girl will be brought to Sacramento for the remaining boy. Then, these Old World monkeys will get to experience something more similar to the lifestyle of the current chimpanzee population.

Little Maria, the baby chimp at the Sacramento Zoo, is now in her second year. Through another policy change, Maria will not have any relationships with people, which will make it easier to see how she naturally would behave in the wild. At almost 2 years old, she’s a hellion who furiously challenges the zookeepers peering at her. Occasionally, she stops her bouncing around long enough to kick one of her kin in the head and run away.

Her handlers say that, for a little while longer, she’s allowed to do absolutely anything without punishment. But fairly soon, when the cute little tuft of white fur on her butt disappears, she’ll be expected to behave a little more respectably. If she reaches maturity before the national chimpanzee coordinator is ready to breed her, perhaps she’ll be put on birth control. That’s what happened to the female orangutans when the newly matured male got too anxious to wait for his new playmate to arrive, said Public Relations Coordinator Dagmar Smith.

Though captive animals are better cared for than in the old days, and though they’re bred specifically for their own health, it’s hard not to imagine a time when so much habitat has been eroded that zoo animals are the only healthy examples of endangered species left.

Field hopes things never get so bad. “I don’t want to see us become the holders of all genetic information,” she said.