TAMPA, Fla. — Genevieve Chandler has been visiting the Lowry Park Zoo since she was a kid, but the tour she got the other night was definitely not the G-rated fare of her childhood.
Among the things Chandler, 30, and her date learned on their “Wild at Heart” zoo tour: Male pigs have a unique corkscrew endowment and impressive, um, output; manatees have orgies and don’t really care if their partners are male or female; and a male porcupine has only one four-hour window a year to mate — very carefully, of course.
Valentine’s Day is the time of year when zoos around the nation seek to woo a new adult audience with risque tours that couple champagne, chocolate-covered strawberries and candlelight dining with impressive facts about how animals do the wild thing.
Credit for the concept goes to Jane Tollini, a former penguin keeper at the San Francisco Zoo. Tollini conceived the idea two decades ago while watching her penguins’ courtship ritual, which culminates in what she describes as “bowling pins making love.”
“The keepers get there early and we see things that other people don’t see,” Tollini said. “And I went, ’My God, that’s fascinating.’ You know the old Peter Sellers line, ’I like to watch?’ You kind of go, ’Oh my, my, my. How big? How many? How far?’ It was unbelievable.”
She set the ritual to Johnny Mathis — the makeout tunes of her generation — pitched it to her bosses and a new zoo tradition was born. The idea soon spread to other zoos.
San Francisco calls it “Woo at the Zoo.” New York City’s Central Park Zoo calls it “Jungle Love.” Zoo marketing folks in Boise, Idaho, named the tour “Wild Love at the Zoo.”
Zoos charge about $50 per person for the tours, and crowds are kept deliberately intimate. Many zoos, including Lowry Park, have added additional nights to handle Valentine’s overflow.
“It’s a fundraiser, but it’s definitely not our largest,” said Rachel Nelson, Lowry Park’s director of public relations. “It’s a way to introduce a new audience to the zoo.”
Tollini puts it more bluntly.
“Sex sells. No matter what,” Tollini said. “I wish I had a nickel for everybody that has copied me. But not every city is as liberal as San Francisco and can get away with what I do.”
Even in San Francisco, zoo sex tours are mostly all talk and no action. Animals do it when they please, or, in some cases, when their human keepers deem it appropriate.
Tour guides in Tampa warned of possible manatee make-out sessions. But the giant mammals were content to munch on vegetation while the tour group ate a candlelight dinner in front of the zoo’s massive aquarium windows.
“Manatees are not particular,” Nelson said. “We have only males right now and they don’t seem to care.”
Despite the blunt talk on the tour, many in the Saturday crowd in Tampa were coy about their reasons for attending.
“I really like the zoo and I thought it was a nice thing to do with my boyfriend for Valentine’s Day,” Chandler said.
Her most memorable statistic: “whales have like 10-foot-long whatevers.”
Hillsborough Community College professor Mara Manis said the evening’s unique educational twist attracted her to the tour.
“People always look to do something on Valentine’s Day. It’s one of those holidays where everything has been done so many times. It’s so forced.” Manis said. “And this is different.”
Her date, landscape architect John Tate, made it clear he hoped to cash in on the “King of the Jungle” title he won earlier in the evening. His moves were deemed the best in a contest showcasing how some male animals must win their mates with elaborate dances.
“This is the only time of year I have free license,” Tate said, smiling.
Statistics about whale endowments and monkey love may not prove useful on the human dating scene, but a scent-marking experiment with big cats could prove useful when selecting a cologne to wear — or not to wear — on a tiger tour in India.
“Apparently,” Nelson said, “tigers prefer Obsession.”
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