This Valentine's Day, Cupid won't be making a stop at the Smithsonian's National Zoo. Unlike the spontaneous attraction that most humans equate with love and romance, mating and dating at the National Zoo is planned, strategic and science-based--quite an unromantic encounter.
Successful breeding is often much more complicated than putting a male and female together and expecting nature to take its course. Animals in captivity need to be managed carefully to ensure the most genetically diverse population--which leads to healthier animals and a sustainable population that can safeguard a species from extinction.
The National Zoo facilitates this controlled and strategic breeding through its participation in the Species Survival Plan, a cooperative population management program among the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Species Survival Plans maintain the pedigree of each animal in a particular program and make breeding recommendations for those animals based on which is most genetically important, as well as taking into account whether the facility has space for potential offspring.
Without a Species Survival Plan, animal populations are at risk of stagnation and eventual extinction. The plan ensures both a good genetic match and an environment that enables optimal breeding conditions for the animal, such as healthy diets and environmental control.
At the National Zoo, having a pair of animals with the right genetics is only half the battle in successful breeding. The science of managing the animals and ensuring they have the right habitat for their needs are also essential to successful reproduction. National Zoo animal care staff are experts in ensuring quality habitat and have had numerous successes during the past years in captive breeding.
Sometimes two animals might be the right genetic match but moving them to the same facility is not feasible. In these cases, the National Zoo's world-renowned reproductive science team steps in with assisted reproductive techniques. The Zoo's female giant panda and one of their elephants have both undergone artificial insemination procedures with sperm from males at different facilities. The Zoo's first successful elephant birth from artificial insemination occurred in 2001 when Shanthi was artificially inseminated using new catheter and ultrasound techniques developed by Zoo scientists.
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