Without lust, the entire animal kingdom, including us, would cease to exist.
At least that’s what Taronga Zoo’s senior emeritus curator, Erna Walraven, has concluded after 30 years refining the art of breeding.
It’s an area that comes with unique challenges.
“I was an animal matchmaker for many years — and there was a lot of online dating we’d do on their behalf,” Ms Walraven said.
“To their great surprise, someone would arrive in the enclosure next to them and they would be introduced, but it’s like an arranged marriage, they may or may not like each other!”
For Ms Walraven, successful breeding meant understanding, beyond passion, what the role of a father and a mother was in each species.
It was a fascination that was necessary to maintaining a genetically sound population of more than 400 species, including birds, reptiles and amphibians, at the zoo.
It also allowed her to undertake observational research into what human fathers can learn from their animal counterparts.
In her new book, Wild Fathers, she analyses the range of fatherhood in the wild — everything from “slam, bam, thank you, ma’am” tiger fathers to dedicated single dads, like emus.
Some will never meet their progeny while others will risk their lives to care for and protect their offspring.
“So in every species there is a blueprint of what the father does and what the mother does, and that doesn’t vary,” she said.
“Every father in that species follows the same path. However, in humans, we don’t have that blueprint. We go the whole gamut of one-night stands to absolutely committed fathers.”
She believes by viewing our shared and different evolutionary history with role-model animal dads, human dads can understand what good fatherhood means.
Particularly when Ms Walraven estimates that of the more than 5,000 species of mammals, only 5 per cent are fathers as we’d consider them in the human world.
The book is dedicated to Kibabu, a western lowland gorilla homed at Taronga Zoo.
As an authoritarian leader, he makes the overarching decisions for the protection of his entire troop.
“He took all the stress. Even in a fire at the zoo, he shepherded all the females and six children into the only area with direct access to fresh air before help had arrived,” she said.
A gorilla’s strength means it can easily crush its young if it wishes, but Kibabu is known for his gentleness in play.
For Ms Walraven, the key takeaway from this good gorilla father was the way he looked after the mother of his children.
“During one incident when the gorillas first arrived from the Netherlands, Kribu, one of the females, came out of the transport disorientated and abandoned her baby. The baby was screaming,” she said.
“She was dazed but Kibabu picked up the baby, and he put one hand on her hand and then gently pasted the little infant on her chest. He stayed there until she wrapped her arms around the baby. Immediately, she had found her anchor.”
Over the years, she observed that Kibabu’s sons had the same leadership style as they became the breeding males in Japan.
“It’s important to note animals don’t have language, so it proves so much comes down to behaviour and example,” she said.
Penguins are also terrific dads, taking the values of commitment to the extreme.
Ms Walraven said all penguin species helped with child-rearing and in the case of the emperor penguin, it can be to the point of starvation.
“After she lays the egg, the male is the one who protects it with a roll of fat for three months in Antarctica as he waits for his female to come back with a belly of fish,” she said.
“By the time she returns, he’s scrawny, so from the penguin we can learn (that) in order to raise a child, a father needs to be committed to the offspring, which may mean sacrifice or hardship for himself.”
Of course, some animals represent the deadbeat dads of the animal kingdom — namely, the stepfather lions that kill any young when trying to mate with a new female.
Others mentor those that aren’t their biological young.
Elephant males become so boisterous in their teens that they get pushed out of the group by the females in the matriarchal society. They go on to create bachelor groups, and it is the big male bulls in those groups that teach them discipline, taking on mentor roles.
Her research also made some findings about the courtship of species that seem uncanny.
“I found that the more flamboyant courtship a male does in the wild, (they) never help with the child-rearing.
“There are perhaps similarities in human courtships too,” she laughed.
However, what was encouraging was that even in the animal world, first-time fathers often weren’t very good at it.
“It’s really only those first-time parents that have assisted their parents in raising the next clutch of young, like marmosets or tamarinds, that are naturals. They stay with their family groups for a number of years before they go off to breed.”
Ms Walraven said humans can emulate this by getting early experience with the babies of friends or their siblings.
Even after decades in the field, zoology still holds the Netherlands-born expert spellbound.
“All the instincts I’ve observed. I can look back at animals and see exactly the same reactions as I’ve seen in humans in animals and vice versa,” she said.
After coming to Australia in 1980 as a translator, as she resat her exams, she took a series of jobs on hobby farms that led her to a career change and a job as a zookeeper at Taronga Zoo in 1983.
‘It’s the magic moments that made me fall in love with this line of work. Like when you hold eye contact with a tiger for a second or a bird dances for you. It’s just irreplaceable.”
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