Let's Talk About (Animal) Sex With the L.A. Zoo's Curator

These lizards are about to fuck.
These lizards are about to fuck.
Photo by Tad Motoyama

It may have soothed the nerves of the landscaper who fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Los Angeles Zoo yesterday to learn that male gorillas have incredibly small penises. Seriously, like the size of a human female's pinky finger.

That's according to Beth Schaefer, the zoo's general curator who, despite all of the excitement over there, took time to speak with me yesterday about animal sex. 

Last week, the zoo sent out a hilariously suggestive press release for its "wild, adults-only Valentine's celebration," Sex and the City Zoo, which read like a posting on a fetishist website: "Although the Los Angeles Zoo is best known as one of Southern California’s most family-friendly destinations, adults take their turn with a [night] dedicated to romance in the animal kingdom." And there's an optional dinner! But before zoophiles get too pumped, it's just a presentation about animal mating given by Schaefer, which is totally interesting given that "animal romance" is the foundation upon which this and all zoos are built. As Schaefer puts it: "It all comes down to saving animals, and sex is like the bottom line."


I asked her some questions about animals doing it. 

Gwynedd Stuart: Can you tell me a little bit about what you do as the zoo's general curator?

Beth Schaefer: As the general curator I basically oversee the animal collection. We have specialized curators who report to me — for mammals, birds, reptiles — so I oversee them and it’s like being a curator in a museum, deciding what needs to go in what exhibit and where we’re going to get animals ...

Where do zoos get their animals and how do you decide what you need?

99.9 percent of the time it's from other zoos. A lot of it has to do with conservation. We really focus heavily on endangers species and propagating species that need to be worked with, like the California condor. That’s kind of why it all comes down to sex — who's breeding with who, finding the right mate genetically speaking, the right parameters needed to reproduce; some species won't mate if they don't have competition.

There are so many cliches about animals being sexually prolific, but it seems like a lot of these motherfuckers are pretty finicky. Can you think of some examples? 

Armenian vipers. They live way up in the mountains, so you have to cool them down so they go into winter hibernation, come out, the males compete and then they mate. No one was willing to cool them down to almost freezing. Our guys were like, in these mountains in Armenia it gets cold. So we cooled them down to 34 degrees, put another male in there with the [male-female] pair, and then we had baby Armenian vipers. We were the first zoo in the Western hemisphere to be successful. There've been a lot of advancements all across the board since zoos started, but really in the last 40 years as far as paying attention to social dynamics and what animals need to be mentally as physically healthy.

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Some animals are just totally sexually inept right? Like, I read pandas can't even find their penises sometimes or something. 

I honestly haven't worked with giant pandas, but it's traditionally been hard to get them to reproduce in captivity. It really is astounding how many animals have tiny, tiny penises, disproportionate to their body size. Gorillas' are the size of my pinky finger. Then there are echidnas, which are these odd Australian monotremes; they have these penises that are three-quarters their their body length and it has four heads — it’s insane. But if you think about it, gorillas [live in communities with only] one male. There's not competition, so he doesn't have to woo the females with his giant ... member. It’s evolved to be tiny and inside unless he’s using it. But echidnas are these spiky creatures like hedgehogs, so it has to be able to reach past all that. There are a lot of different mating strategies among different animals, stuff that's so different from humans that’s quite amazing.

Sex and the City Zoo, the Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens, 5333 Zoo Drive, Griffith Park; Sat., Feb. 13, 5-7 p.m. (dinner from 7-9 p.m.); $42.99–$137.49. lazoo.org/sexandthecityzoo.


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