watching animals screw at the zoo

by by Chloe Malle

On Valentine's Day in the heart of New York's Central Park, "Jungle Love" ceases to be merely a mating call for Steve Miller buffoons; it's the name of the Central Park Zoo's annual adult entertainment show, headlined by a gang of horny baboons. On February 14, zoos across the country are tearing a page out of Larry Flynt's book and discovering that sex really does sell. Grabbing onto Hallmark's penguinic coattails, zoos will charge guests a prix fixe of up to $80 for an evening of bestial adult entertainment, food and drink included.

Conceived 20 years ago at the San Francisco Zoo by former penguin keeper Jane Tollini, "Woo at the Zoo" has taken off like a squid in heat, inspiring a host of similar programs. The latest sightseeing trend, animal sex tourism, is built for two--not such a Lonely Planet anymore. And just as for conventional attractions, every city has its own branding. "Woo at the Zoo" is a three-hour adult-only guided tour replete with champagne and chocolate for the fair fee of $60. Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo begins its third annual "Wild at Heart" tour near the South American aviary and ends with a candlelit dinner. The Honolulu Zoo, which uses its "Love Gone Wild" Valentine's Day event as a fundraiser for conservation, pulls out all the stops, serenading guests not only with mating crickets but the Honolulu Jazz Quartet, a traditional Hawaiian dinner and not-so-traditional Hawaiian martini bar catered under the stars.

The brilliant combination of champagne and candlelight with hippos and their aphrodisiacal excretions was a cash cow waiting to happen. The idea was hatched one morning when Jane Tollini spied a penguin courtship ritual culminating in what she described to the San Jose Mercury News as "bowling pins making love." "The keepers get there early and we see things that other people don't see," Tollini explained to the Independent. So, she figured, why not allow other voyeurs the pleasure and set the ritual to Johnny Mathis tunes--the makeout soundtrack of her generation? Her bosses were turned on by the idea and a zoo tradition was born.

Kama Zootra
Despite the delightful variety of these animal sex tours from zoo to zoo, several characteristics remain constant. For instance, the adult-only label is taken seriously; guests must present a state driver's license or alternate form of identification to prove they are at least 21. Another unifying trait, perhaps shocking to us stale corner-bistro-on-Valentine's-day types, is that these events are always, without exception, sold out from advance reservation. "This is one of the most popular programs that the zoo has to offer, going into its 19th year," San Francisco Zoo spokesman Paul Garcia told the Independent.

Depending on the zoo and its specific residents, the tours will vary from place to place; however, most include an educational element to make the voyeuristic events' peeping Tom element a bit less, well, creepy. Tour guides, all holding degrees in either Biology or Zoology, will educate "Wild at Heart" guests with a 90-minute multimedia presentation offering a scientific look at animal reproductive practices, including courtship rituals and quirky procreation habits. Other presentations explain how species maintain their populations and how the zoos assist inmates in the reproductive process.

Such an event even exists in Providence's own Roger Williams Zoo. And, true to its namesake, the zoo spreads a message of tolerance, advertising its February 16 "Love is in the Air" event to couples and singles alike, unlike other zoos that host couples-only tours. For $30 per person or $55 per couple, "Love is in the Air" promises dinner, a strolling violinist and animal encounters. Festive attire is recommended.

They waited all night by your door
Sex tours inspired by this idea have become so successful that even aquariums are jumping on board. The New York Aquarium in Brooklyn launched its first annual "Sex in the Sea" Valentine's Day singles mixer in 2004, capitalizing literally on the plenty-more-fish-in-the-sea idiom. The aquarium invites singles to nosh on cheese and wine while learning about the asexual--yet sexy--reproductive methods of sea anemones.

Like all dangerous liaisons, wooing at the zoo has its detractors. At a Honolulu City Council meeting, animal rights advocate Cathy Goeggel called "Love Gone Wild" "swarmy" and expressed concern that it conflicted with the philosophical aims of the city's Zoological Society. The immense popularity of the event has effectively silenced Goeggel, but there is also the logistical problem of mating schedules. Most animals reserve their mating practices for the daytime hours, but to avoid conflicting with normal schedules, most zoos' Valentine's Day events must be slated for Valentine's Night. The shows must begin after dark; it's impossible to host an adults-only event during traditional zoo day hours when field trips are coming in and kindergartners are swarming, and besides, there is an increased romance factor in watching the explosion of liters—yes, liters—of elephant semen under the opal glow of moonlight.

Jane Tollini is adamant when clarifying that "Woo at the Zoo" and other tours like it are not a sex-on-stage show. "The first thing I say to people on the tour is, 'If you came to watch animals doing it, then you should get out of the truck and go home and do it yourself.'" She explains that since the inception of her "Sex Tours"—the name has since been changed to reflect the San Francisco Zoo's family values—she never advertised it as an animal sex show. "It's not like you can go and say, 'Up, Rhino, up.' Sometimes with smaller tours we bump into animals who are doing it, but it certainly isn't because of us. The thing is, if you explain to people in enough detail—how big, how much, how many, how long—with a little imagination, you got it."

CHLOE MALLE B'08 is your sexasaurus.