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Head Over Heels (and Hooves!) at the Zoo

Love is in the air throughout the month of February, including at Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo! Courtship rituals here, like everywhere in the world, are wildly diverse. A male otter may bite the female’s nose to show he’s interested; swans engage in an elaborate dance, synchronizing their movements. Just like their human counterparts, there are animals that mate for life, like wolves, and some, like prairie dogs, whose entire mating season is only one hour long. What makes one species choose monogamy as the secret to survival, while others form a looser bond, coming together only to procreate? 

“If we’re looking for inspiration in the animal kingdom, swans are a picturesque example of lifelong commitment,” explained Gregg Dancho, Zoo Director. At the Beardsley Zoo, lifelong lovers include wolf pairs and Howler monkeys. If you’re looking for examples in your own backyard, look no further than coyotes, barn owls, and bald eagles.

Zoos are charged with animal conservation and species protection, which means that many, Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo included, are members of the Species Survival Plan (SSP). Developed in 1981, SSP helps ensure the survival of species that are threatened or endangered in the wild. SSP maintains a database of healthy and genetically diverse animals within the zoo community where it is believed that captive breeding programs assist the species’ chances of survival.

“Our breeding pairs include our North American River Otters, our Giant Anteaters, our Amur Leopards, and we hope, someday, our Amur Tigers,” Dancho said. 

The zoo recently received a new female Amur Tiger, Chang, in hopes of creating future offspring with the resident male tiger, Petya. Transfers between zoos are arranged in order to optimize breeding potential, keeping genetic diversity, animal age and health, and need for new members of the species as critical components in deciding who goes where.

“Zoos offer much more than animals on display,” Dancho explained. “ The end goal of many SSP breeding programs is to reintroduce animals to the wild.” Zoos have brought back several species from the brink of extinction, among them black-footed ferrets, California condors, red wolves, and bongos, a threatened African antelope.

Successful breeding programs at the Beardsley Zoo have resulted in a baby Giant Anteater, Guinea hog piglets, Nigerian Dwarf goat kids, Red wolf pups, and North American River Otter pups, among many others over the years.