Valentine’s Day in the animal kingdom

John Kelly
Columnist February 13, 2013

It’s Valentine’s Day, the day for love.

Or, frankly, lust. Raw, animal lust. And when we’re talking raw, animal lust, who better to check in with than the animals themselves?

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

“I’m going to share a word with you that you may not have heard,” Don Moore, associate director for animal-care sciences at the National Zoo, tells me on the phone. “Cowabunga.”

Don explains that’s the word scientists — slightly silly scientists granted, but scientists nonetheless — use to describe The Act.

(You know the act I’m talking about, right? It’s the one that results in cute, little babies.)


A pair of flamingos in a courtship dance. (Mehgan Murphy/SMITHSONIAN’S NATIONAL ZOO)

“I’ve got two cowabungas,” Don says. “The fishing cats were observed mating several weeks ago. That’s one cowabunga. Then we had the cowabunga over and over, and that’s the Sumatran tigers, Kavi and Damai.”

Over and over? Try 49 times in seven days.

“Cats are in a different class,” Don says.

I’ll say. Of course, it probably helps if your pickup line is: “Hey, baby, you’re endangered. I’m endangered. Let’s say we. . . .

As I’m talking to Don he gets an e-mail from Jim Murphy over in the zoo’s reptile discovery center.

“Jim says the Panamanian and golden frogs are in amplexus,” Don says excitedly.

Am-whatus?

“The cowabunga position in amphibians,” he explains. “The male grasps the female and then rides her until she lays her eggs. He can ride her for days.”

And you thought there was no upside to being a Panamanian frog.

To us, it may seem that it’s still winter outside, but to the animals at the zoo, spring has sprung. The days are getting longer, and it’s time to start putting some buns in some ovens. For the flamingos, it’s time to turn pink.

That’s what the long-necked birds do when it gets close to let’s-get-it-on time. Hormones surge, and feathers get pinker. The flamingos start their courtship displays. Really, Don says, I should talk to Sara Hallager about this.

“It’s designed to get the whole flock into synchrony,” Sara says when I get her on the phone. That means on the same page, reproduction-wise.

“In the wild, that’s important,” says Sara, a biologist in the Bird House. “Eggs need to come at a time when environmental conditions are the best, when there are adequate food supplies and the right conditions to make mud nests.”

Right now at the zoo, the flamingos are dancing and squawking. “It’s really loud,” Sara says. “They don’t care what else is going on. They’ve got one thing on their minds: to bring the flock into synchrony.”

Hey, baby, we may not be endangered, but it’s time to bring the flock into synchrony.

Some of the zoo’s flamingos are approaching 60 years old and have been in committed relationships for years. Others, Sara says, “change off. Why some change from year to year and others stay monogamous, we don’t know.”

According to Don, the wild cranes are also courting. “They’re dancing and courtship calling, all in preparation for nesting,” he says. “The act in birds is called the cloacal kiss. . . . It’s a kiss, but on the other end.”

So, birds are doing it. But bees are not. Bees are hibernating, and Don says the zoo’s observation hive is empty.

Animals may feel lust, but can they feel human emotions such as love?

“We stayed away from emotions for a very long time,” Don says of the animal behaviorist community. But now the work of a scientist named Jaak Panksepp is making researchers take a second look. (“He’s the guy who’s really famous for tickling rats as a form of play,” Don says.)

Panksepp has identified seven emotions in vertebrates. One is what we’ve been talking about: lust. There’s also fear, panic/grief and rage. And there’s seeking, care and play. Combine those last three and you get the sort of bonding relationship a mother has with a child, whether human or animal.

Maybe it’s love, and maybe it even crosses species.

“I have a Lab, and when she rolls over, she likes me to rub her in her armpits,” Don says. ”She seeks me out. I care for her. Is there love there? I don’t know. I want to think there is.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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