Imagine you’re an otter, paddling around your tank in a zoo, nibbling on the odd fish. It might never occur to you that your human overlords have arranged a lutrine lover for you, using an animal version of Match.com. But that’s exactly what zoos do these days, using a database to match their animal inhabitants with suitable mates.
This isn’t about romance or companionship, however. It’s about babies! The best way to keep zoos displays well stocked is to get together animals that have a good chance of mating. “We’ll look at who has the most valuable males and females and try to get them together as long as they are not related to each other,” director of the Chicago-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Population Management Center Sarah Long told Buzzfeed’s Reyhan Harmanci. Matchmakers also look at a species’ behavioral patterns (are they okay with artificial insemination?), geography, and the quirks of the individual animal, which are all listed in the online database.
The system was started in 1981, when accredited American zoos began a captive breeding program called the ‘Species Survival Plan’ in order to facilitate matchmaking between all the zoos in the country. The Population Management Center, which keeps the up-to-date electronic stud books, was created in 2000 by the American Zoo Association. Zoos say it’s to help conserve species and simultaneously create wildlife ambassadors, although some, such as historian and expert on zoos Jeffrey Hyson, argue that it’s “a tough line to maintain when, in fact, you’re talking about captive populations that are, in many cases, generations removed from the wild, and also animals that only in a few very isolated cases stand any chance of being reintroduced to their habitat.”
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The Oakland Zoo in California used this electronic matching technique to great effect, mating 12-year-old male river otter Heath — considered an ideal candidate for mating because he was born in the wild and had no relatives in captivity — with Ginger, a 5-year-old who came over to the west coast from a Massachusetts zoo in 2009.
“We felt pretty confident after the initial introduction between the two was successful, but until the babies are born, you are never completely sure,” Margaret Rousser, the zoo’s manager, told Buzzfeed. The zoo set up a camera to spy on Ginger at night. One day, they noticed two little brown balls of fur. ”I thought they were pinecones — she likes to play with pinecones. But then I went, ‘Oh my gosh!’ ” Andrea Dougall told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I was speechless. Elated. I called my boss and my voice was shaking.” Three more babies — Rose, Etu and Takoda — appeared this spring, and zoo keepers already plotting their future pairings.
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