At one time or another, I imagine almost everyone in the U.S. over the age of 18 has checked out an online dating site like Match.com (NASDAQ:IACI – $17.11) or eHarmony (a private company).
Finding that elusive, compatible other – the one your mother assured you would show up in due time – is part of human programming, and using an online site to do so can be effective for several reasons. First, individuals are screened before being released on an unsuspecting and emotionally vulnerable population. Second, the anonymity provides greater safety for women than the club scene, where things can go south so quickly it’s hard to know whether it’s ever safe to take your eyes off your drink.
Online matching is fairly simple, Provide a profile of your physical attributes and likes and dislikes, and a computer algorithm selects the candidate(s) most likely to please you. From ice cream brands to shoes, and including those nasty little habits, someone out there likes what you like (and hates what you hate).
The rules aren’t that much different at your local zoo (and, no, I’m not referring to that tacky little bar down the street). There, the same sorts of databases that work to connect people also work to match breeding-age lemurs, antelope and capybaras. The difference is, in zoos, only the matchmakers (animal breeders) have Internet connections.
These databases, originally developed on paper and still called studbooks, are increasingly being used by zookeepers, animal handlers and wildlife biologists in captive breeding programs for rare or endangered animals. The particular Discovery.com article I’m citing involves Killarney, an Australian koala female who seems to have the animal form of social anxiety disorder. Not only does she ignore potential mates, but she tends to take a swing at them if they get too intimate.
In the human world, this would be an automatic fail, the female eventually relegated to spinsterhood, cats and causes. In the animal world, zookeepers and animal handlers persist because species extinction is the alternative. Killarney, like her human counterpart, will be allowed to choose a mate more to her liking, but she won’t be allowed not to choose. Not, that is, until she either kills her potential partner (unlikely with a koala, very likely with tigers) or becomes too old to reproduce.
Another case study in captive breeding involves Naomi, the young giraffe at the Miami zoo. Naomi is the result of bringing together two zoo giraffes (the male from the St. Louis zoo) chosen for their health, strength and size. Unlike human liaisons, which can take place based on appearance or shared interests (and sometimes on nothing more than impulse), the matching of animals is a precise science with predetermined objectives.
Or take the baby meerkats at Auckland Zoo in New Zealand. Though the zoo has had meerkats since 1991, age and natural attrition had reduced their numbers and breeding potential to near extinction level. Only the arrival of meerkat sisters from South Africa saved the day, and the meerkat triplets that resulted have made the population viable again, insuring that these lovable, highly social creatures will continue to exist and charm us with their televised antics.
If online dating for endangered animals seems kind of cold and calculating, remember that captive breeding is driven by both necessity (to preserve species) and economics. As human populations expand, animals run out of space. Equally as relevant, zoos have budgets, just like people do. The cost just to set up a captive breeding program can exceed $15,000. The cost to accomplish breeding runs even higher. Estimates peg the worldwide zoo budget at $500 million in 1990, with captive breeding programs taking about five percent of the budget. Assuming there are about 100 zoos large enough for captive breeding programs, each producing one rare animal per year, the cost of an animal can easily reach $25,000 – a cost matched, somewhat surprisingly, by the price of a modern wedding. But where human alliances can fail, affecting the children, animal breeding has no unwanted offspring.
The studbooks, many still in paper form, are used at more than 200 zoos in the U.S. and elsewhere, and individual handlers, like Laurie Bingaman Lackey in Asheville, North Carolina, consider them a sacred trust. Lackey keeps the giraffe studbook, and tracks the genetic linkages of every one of North America’s giraffe’s within its pages. The entries aren’t about a potential mate’s favorite food, color, film or leisure activity though, but the candidate’s age, sex, weight, and general health or special needs. The animals can’t lie about this, either, the way humans often do. Studbook keepers are scrupulously honest because the future of their charges depends on it.
The only other area in which human and animal “dating” coincide is personality profiling. Studbooks almost always contain an overview of the animal’s temperament, which is a valuable matching tool in the case of aggressive species like tigers, hippos and elephants. Killarney, the hyper-aggressive koala, is clearly an exception to the rule and likely has several pages devoted to her phobias.
As new software makes them Web-compatible, many of these studbooks are going online. This holds the promise of faster and more accurate matches and, as a result, greater breeding success. One thing hasn’t changed however; studbook keepers are assiduous about recording their information, and once an animal is born, or brought into a zoo, and assigned a number, that number never changes, even if the animal is later moved. The number is also retired if an animal dies, much like a Social Security number.
The Columbia Zoo in South Carolina and Walt Disney World (NYSE:DIS – $34.39) in Florida are two of about 20 locations chosen to test this new online matching program, called ZIMS. Disney World, which manages about 27 studbooks in the U.S., is the sole repository of information on the endangered African elephant.
As humans spread across the planet, captive breeding programs in increasingly sophisticated zoos may be the only way to preserve these beautiful, wild, threatened fellow denizens of earth. While no program can save the lovely, shy Vaquita, which has habitat needs man can’t duplicate, it’s nice to know that many other creatures, from bottlenose dolphins to lemurs, will survive to delight our children as they once delighted us.
Disclosure: I don’t own Match.com or Disney stock.