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Trying to get zoo animals to breed is both art, science

An African wild dog looks visitors Lincoln Park Zoo Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

An African wild dog looks at visitors of the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 20, 2012 8:04AM

With her gray, hairy whiskers, deep wrinkles and jagged claws, Meatball, a southern three-banded armadillo, isn’t the sexiest animal at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Solitary by nature, this type of armadillo gives birth to only one offspring at a time. Candles and champagne won’t work for these loners. Their human caretakers need to study their habits to learn what puts them in the mood, analyzing hormones to try to figure out when females are most receptive to mating and whom they might be interested in.

“Compatibility is a real issue,” said Dave Bernier, general curator at the Lincoln Park Zoo. “You have to worry about aggression. Stress levels need to be low.”

Birds do it, bees do it, even armadillos do it. And for more than a decade, about 90,000 animals living in North American zoos and aquariums like Meatball have mated — or not — under the watchful eye of zookeepers in a program based at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Started in 2000, the Population Management Center brings together the country’s zoos and aquariums to help endangered species survive, avoid inbreeding of genetically linked animals and keep zoos full but not overcrowded.

Now, the PMC is moving into its next phase, a more advanced animal and one that officials at the Lincoln Park Zoo hope will lead to an even deeper understanding of the most basic of animal instincts. A new online database is helping researchers gauge what happens when they transfer animals to other zoos to mate. How does the animal adjust to its new surroundings? How does the introduction go for the new mate? Do they mate and successfully produce healthy offspring? The new PMCTrack aims to find out, analyzing thousands of data points about America’s zoo animals.

For many of these animals, this isn’t about sex. It’s about species survival, the motivation driving different institutions to work together for a common goal.

“This is more than about baby animals,” said Sarah Long, PMC’s director. “We want to save species. It’s not often you see separate economic entities working together. It’s still amazing to me it all works.”

For other species, not breeding is as important as getting their groove on. “We don’t have space for everyone to breed willy-nilly,” Long said. “Everything is planned.”

Each animal species has a team of matchmakers, zoo staff from around the country who volunteer their time to weigh in on matches. In person or online, the teams weigh everything from the animals’ personalities to their genetic makeup before recommending if animals be moved from one zoo to another for a possible match.

Some animals, like Meatball, are classified as “holds” — basically a sentence to celibacy for a variety of reasons. In Meatball’s case, she was hand-raised and is small in size. Bernier is concerned she would have trouble giving birth.

Like human matchmaking, animal matchmaking is a blend of science and art. For some larger, more aggressive animals, it’s a particularly delicate balance.

“It’s still a big mystery to us,” Bernier said. “For armadillos you can pick up and move them [if the match is unsuccessful]. Tigers get aggressive. You need to know the background.”

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