Cheryl Asa wants to offer a disclaimer. She is going to be talking solely about animal sex tonight, and any parallels to the human variety must be drawn at one's own risk.
That said, she's ready to begin her nearly packed pre-Valentine's Day lecture at the Saint Louis Zoo.
"So, what puts a female nonhuman animal in the mood?" she asks rhetorically, drawing giggles from the crowd, which includes a group of 30 students from John Burroughs School. "This is an interesting one," she remarks, pointing to a projected image of a pair of flies. "These flies here, they're in copulo right now."
The audience peers closer. The female appears to be eating something.
"He has brought her a food gift," Asa explains in her usual manner, which is to say, verbosely. "The larger the better, because he's not very fast, and she'll fly off when she's done. So if he brings her a nice big juicy gift, then it takes her a long time to eat it, and the chances increase that his sperm will be the ones that fertilize her eggs."
Moving on to feral horses (one of Asa's specialties), she can't help sneaking in a warning for any potential polygamists. "One male feral horse mates with a bunch of mares," she says. "It's called a harem group. So you guys might think, 'That sounds like a great thing -- one male and a whole bunch of females!'"
Unfortunately, there's more than one male in these herds. "If you get to be that one male, then you're home, but the bachelors who are out there get nothing."
Clad in a red blouse and black boots, Asa is by far the comeliest sexagenarian in the room (though technically she won't be 60 for another two weeks). With a few matronly strands of gray hair highlighting an otherwise dark-brown bob, she gives off an aura that's part college professor, part MILF. In the movie, Jennifer Connelly would play her.
Currently the head of the Endangered Species Research Center, Asa has seventeen years at the zoo under her belt. She knows perhaps as much about animal sex as anyone in the world, and she's happy to babble on for hours about how spiders, addaxes or garter snakes get busy. She helped pioneer the growing field of animal contraception, co-founding the Wildlife Contraception Center (also based at the zoo), the only facility of its kind in the world. The center's scientists have helped develop and implement birth-control techniques for a wide swath of God's creatures, from the dusky leaf monkey to the hippo.
But the beast that really lights Asa's fire is the wolf. Right now she's on a quest to save the Mexican gray, the most endangered wolf in the world. Only about 60 are thought to exist in the wild, and of the 200 or so in captivity, many are not suitable mates because they're too closely related to one another. Soon Asa will travel 600 snowy miles in the dead of night to insert an electrified probe into a male wolf's rectum in order to harvest his sperm, which will then be used to manually impregnate an ovulating female.
"Though February is the month of romance with Valentine's Day coming up next week," she says, wrapping up tonight's lecture, "it's also the breeding season of most of the North American wolves and foxes. So this is a really busy month for us."
It's cold in Bumblefuck, Minnesota. Five degrees, to be precise. Asa and her zoo crew have traveled to the Wildlife Science Center, an animal sanctuary and educational facility about 40 minutes north of the Twin Cities where roving packs of German shepherds wander the grounds, taunting caged wolves and following the scientists as they drag their microscopes, petri dishes and other paraphernalia indoors.
Asa climbs atop one of the more handsome dogs and rubs her rump on his black coat.
"Isn't he hot?" inquires Peggy Callahan, the center's director. Asa nods affirmatively but says she prefers German shepherds with the more typical black-and-tan coats.
Today's inseminations will take place in the center's functional but decidedly unglamorous lab, atop a rusty table covered with a tattered blue blanket. "Please clean the raptor food bucket daily," a sign on the fridge reads. "Green and black sludge probably isn't healthy."
The group has been joined by Ragnar Thomassen, a bespectacled Norwegian veterinary professor who has flown in from Oslo. Thomassen has been doing artificial inseminations on domestic dogs and foxes for years, and he's here to demonstrate how his method might be used on wolves.
The test subject is Godfrey, a 90-pound tundra wolf who could, on a good day, rip you limb from limb. It took Callahan and a half-dozen center workers to corner Godfrey in his cage. Once they had him, they shot him full of ketamine, an animal tranquilizer known to legions of club kids as Special K. Now he's on his back on the table, his legs inelegantly splayed. He'll be under for about 45 minutes. "He won't wake up, I promise," Callahan assures the group.
Mark Beckel, Callahan's husband and fellow wolf enthusiast, smoothly pulls Godfrey's penis from beneath a layer of fur. It looks not unlike a tube of red lipstick. After threading a thin catheter through the wolf's urethra, Beckel attaches the tube to a syringe and extracts Godfrey's urine -- enough to fill a twenty-ounce Diet Coke bottle.
Asa: "Every year I think we should use a Mountain Dew bottle instead."
Now Asa takes over. First she measures Godfrey's testicles. Or rather, testicle: The left one is shriveled and nonfunctioning. "Oooh!" she exclaims as her calipers span the other kidney-shaped sperm bank: 52.5 millimeters. "This one," she says, "is as good as two."
The Minnesota contingency has taken the occasion to hang balloons and ribbons around the lab in Asa's honor. They've even prepared a birthday cake featuring a crude icing sketch of Asa with a pair of wolves, bearing her rectal probe. "You're next!" one caricatured wolf warns the other.
"I can't think of a better time," Asa sighs. "Electrojaculating wolves with my friends."
You might not guess it to look at her, but Frijole has sweet genes. The nervous, slightly chunky nine-year-old Mexican gray lives at the Wild Canid Center, a nonprofit wolf sanctuary based at Washington University's Tyson Research Center. Located about twenty miles southwest of St. Louis off Interstate 44, the center is home to 29 adult Mexican grays, the largest concentration of Canis lupus baileyi in the world, outside their natural mountain habitats in New Mexico and Arizona.
Mexican grays typically run about 60 to 80 pounds, while tundra wolves like Godfrey are longer-legged and can tip the scales at up to 120. Mexican grays go after smaller prey than their northern neighbors -- elk and smaller deer, not caribou. Frijole has a darker salt-and-pepper coat than most of her Minnesota cousins, with a more refined head and more rounded ears.
Years of human land grab and generations of fear led to the Mexican gray's downfall. "People had the perception that wolves would eat your livestock and your children," says Kim Scott, the Canid Center's assistant director. "Think about the fairy tales -- like 'Little Red Riding Hood,' 'The Three Little Pigs' and 'Peter and the Wolf.'"
In the late 1970s, the last five known wild Mexican grays were captured. They were eventually brought to St. Louis, and scientists like Asa have been attempting to breed them back from extinction's brink ever since. They've succeeded marginally -- there are now more than 200 in captivity. But like humans, when wolves breed with close relatives, the offspring are more prone to health problems.
Frijole is special because she's less related to the males in her group than her companions are. The problem is that wolves mate for life, and she's got a lout for a mate. His name is Alano, and his DNA is already over-represented in the Canid Center's population.
Which brings us to Dude, another Canid Center resident who's less related to Frijole than Alano is. Because Frijole has bonded with Alano, human intervention is required if she's to become pregnant by Dude.
The procedure Asa and Thomassen are practicing in Minnesota has never been successfully used on a Mexican gray. Previous techniques included an invasive surgical procedure that proved largely ineffective. That and an even lower-tech approach. "We used to just put the sperm in the vagina and hold her upside-down for twenty minutes," Asa recalls.
They don't want to practice on Frijole, because they don't want to have to put her under any more often than they have to; anesthesia always carries a risk.
And so it has come to pass that Godfrey the Minnesota tundra wolf is called upon to take one for the team.
Wolves like Frijole, who are raised in captivity, tend to weigh a good twenty pounds more than their counterparts in the wild.
This has a lot to do with their laid-back, decadent lifestyles. Rather than chase down their prey in the mountains, they gorge on car-splattered deer, which are picked up along interstates and brought in to the Wild Canid Center for them regularly.
But many of these wolves are eventually released back into the wild. Not surprisingly, they get jarred out of their comfort zones pretty quickly.
The same might be said of scientists. Pried away from their controlled environments, a group of reproductive biologists out on the town can be as graceful as an ensemble of belly-dancing rhinoceri.
They've been working all week, and tonight -- a Friday in late February -- it's time to put down the probes and rubber gloves and have some fun. Thomassen has been staying at Asa's Compton Heights row house, in order to conserve the Mexican gray project's precious funds. At 6 p.m. on the dot they head off to South Grand in Asa's red Miata convertible. They meet up with Karen Bauman, who works with Asa at the Endangered Species Research Center, at Mangia Italiano, where they choose a table all the way in the back. Over red wine and pasta with marinara, conversation stutters from topic to topic.
Glancing at a classified ad in the Riverfront Times, Bauman flippantly suggests that maybe she'll sell her eggs for $5,000.
"Oh no," Asa cuts in, dead serious. "Your eggs are too old. They're looking for people in their twenties, and you're in your thirties."
The talk turns to dogs, and why they make such poor dads. In the wild, Asa imparts, male dogs are monogamous and take care of their offspring; domesticated dogs make no such effort.
The personal lives of the assembled humans, meanwhile, receive virtually no mention. When pressed later, Asa will speak glowingly of her two grown sons. ("Even though neither of them are scientists," she jokes.) She's even more reticent to discuss her ex-husband. They divorced a few years after they moved to St. Louis in the late '80s, and he now lives in the San Francisco Bay area. As to what may have led to their uncoupling, she won't disclose. She will say that she grew up in the small town of Herrin, Illinois, a few hours southeast of St. Louis. Her father, an air force pilot, died after the Second World War, when she was a year old.
The greatest happiness of her childhood, Asa says, was to be found at her grandparents' nearby farm. "That's what shaped who I am: being able to spend time in the country, wandering around in the woods and looking for snakes and frogs."
A standout science student in high school, Asa went on to major in zoology and psychology at the University of Wisconsin, where she would earn a Ph.D. in endocrinology and reproductive physiology in 1981. After studying Sechura desert foxes in Peru, she did postdoctoral work in Minnesota with L. David Mech, a giant in the field who has authored ten books on wolves and has spent the better part of 45 years studying them in the wild.
"She was a wonderful worker when she was here," Mech says from his office at the University of Minnesota. "She was involved in behavioral studies that had to do with using urine and feces for marking territories. You know how a dog urinates on a fire hydrant? That's territorial marking, and wolves do a lot of that as well."
"I'd been interested in wolves for a long time, but that absolutely took it to a new level," Asa says of her experience working with Mech. "I was always more interested in carnivores, because I see them as being more clever and intelligent than the animals that they eat: You have to be smarter to hunt than to run away."
She went on to do electron microscopy of sperm cells at the Rockefeller University in New York City, then moved to rural Nevada, where she lived in a tent for a couple of years while working to apply contraceptive techniques to feral horses.
"I vasectomized the harem stallions," she says, growing animated. "The question had been whether the bachelor stallions on the periphery that don't have a harem: whether they were ever successful in siring young, or whether the dominant stallion in the harem really did all the mating."
Turned out the studs "did a very good job of protecting their mares from the outside males," Asa reports.
The Saint Louis Zoo's Endangered Species Research Center is housed in a squat brick building on a quiet corner of the zoo grounds in Forest Park. Asa's staff of three full-time scientists and four graduate students, all of them women, share the building with the zoo's veterinary hospital.
At first glance Asa's domain looks like any other lab one might find in a university biology department. But on closer inspection you might notice the semen-analysis system, the machine that does nothing but shake vials filled with fecal matter, and the seven containers of frozen semen, each about the size of a half-barrel of beer.
Animal sex humor pervades the décor, from a postcard on the wall of a bull humping a trailer to a cartoon of a zoo panda complaining about his line of work. ("You heard me, I work at a federal facility where they force me to perform sexual acts against my will.") Asa herself can be counted on for a humorous yarn every now and again, as well.
Ever hear the one about the fennec fox in the children's zoo who couldn't get the job done?
"For some reason he couldn't intermit," Asa begins in her habitual jargonese. "It was really sad, because he would mount the female and try to copulate over and over. Her sides lost fur from being rubbed so much. After a while she would just get disgusted and try to get away from him, but this would be after a day or more of this.
"He had normal sperm, so I went up and sat and watched when there was a mating," Asa goes on. "And you could see that when he tried to penetrate, his penis would just go off to the side: It was running along her hip rather than intermitting. Which must have been driving them both crazy! So it was clear why they weren't getting her pregnant: He had a crooked penis."
Besides teaching classes in animal behavior at Washington University and endocrinology at Saint Louis University, Asa is the author of more than 100 scientific papers. Over the years she has found time to establish a conservation project, located on the border of Nicaragua and Honduras. She travels there once a year, journeying by canoe to a nature reserve where she studies whether the indigenous residents are engaged in sustainable living and hunting practices.
She's so successful in her field that others sound almost bewildered in their praise.
"She's amazing to work with," ventures the Canid Center's Kim Scott. "I have no idea how she actually accomplishes everything she does. She's a part of so many committees, research projects, she has countless students. Her energy is boundless."
Asa was hired by the zoo as a reproductive biologist in 1988, at a time when American zoos were shedding their reputations as ersatz circus sideshows and solidifying their efforts to work together in regard to animal conservation. Of course, merely capturing endangered animals from the wild and giving them a safe place to live isn't enough. They have to breed -- or be bred. And while Asa's goals are almost universally lauded, her techniques aren't.
"PETA is opposed to holding animals captive in zoos, period, so we're certainly opposed to all the convoluted and manipulative efforts that are made in order to breed the animals," says Lisa Wathne, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "If the only way that Mexican grays are going to survive is if we are manipulating them in this way, then I'd say humans certainly don't deserve to have them around. Efforts to save endangered species need to be focused on preserving habitats of animals in the wild, and stopping poaching."
Asa believes the zoo's mission is compatible with the well-being of endangered species. "We are simply doing the best we can with the resources and knowledge available to us to preserve species that have been endangered by human activities," she maintains. "We believe it's the least we can do."
Though not specifically familiar with Asa's work, Wathne takes issue with the use of electrified probes to stimulate ejaculation. "Electro-ejaculation is not a pleasant procedure for these animals," the animal-rights activist argues. "It's not a procedure that most human males would subject themselves to, and to do it to any other species is abominable."
The probe Asa uses looks not dissimilar to the sexual devices people use. But unlike employing, say, a vibrator, which makes use of an electric motor to buzz its way to orgasm, Asa manipulates her wolves with a device that forces ejaculation by applying an electrical current directly.
Which isn't to say that all humans are entirely unfamiliar with the concept. That fact is money in the bank for Eric Forbes, owner of Eros Tek, a Felton, California, company that markets electro-stimulation -- or "e-stim" -- products to the sexually adventurous. Devotees of e-stim say it's a unique, high-tech way to get off. "Some people are into play where they want to control someone else -- so we have a box for that," says Forbes, mentioning its popularity in BDSM circles. "And then some people just use it for themselves." The types of electrodes used vary, depending on how they are to be used. "Do they want something on the surface? Do they want something inserted? We have both."
Forbes' e-stim devices operate on very quick pulses, transmitting peak voltage for only milliseconds at a time. But it can take a prolonged jolt of up to 150 milliamps to induce ejaculation in a wolf. If you apply that kind of current to your finger, it feels about as disconcerting as a strong static shock from a doorknob in the winter. But taking it in the rectum is a different story.
Forbes says the vast majority of his clients use e-stim to enhance orgasms, not force them. He's familiar with the type of equipment Asa has and knows people who've used it, but he says they're in another league, fetishwise. "There are only rare cases where you find anyone who would raise their hand and say, 'Yeah, I'd like to have that wolf ejaculator put in my butt and be forced to come,'" he says. "It's just a brute force trying to get the animal to come. In a human male, that would be really painful. Some people want to submit to that -- there's no understanding of human sexuality sometimes."
Counters Asa: "The procedures -- both the semen collections and the artificial inseminations -- are done under anesthesia, so the animals experience no discomfort. In fact, the very same procedures are used clinically with humans.
"Women are artificially inseminated in just this way," she continues. "Also, men who cannot ejaculate but who want to have children willingly undergo electro-ejaculation. They are anesthetized and semen is collected using the same instruments that we use. These are completely humane procedures."
They may disagree on artificial insemination, but PETA has no quarrel with Asa's other main focus: animal contraception. Though the concept isn't new to zoos, its prevalence is largely due to Asa's work. She and her colleagues at the Wildlife Contraception Center (which Asa co-founded in 1999) have helped develop and implement birth-control techniques for animals.
"There's no such thing as condoms for animals," she'll patiently explain. "Everybody asks that. But it's an amusing thing to imagine." Instead, most animals receive contraceptives in the form of birth-control pills, shots or implants.
And animal contraception is no joke. In 1999 San Jose Mercury News reporter Linda Goldston exposed the seedy side of overbreeding. Goldston found that some zoos were selling off surplus animals, many of which ended up being killed at hunting-safari ranches or living in deplorable conditions in unaccredited zoos.
Asa recently co-authored a book called Wildlife Contraception, slated for publication later this year by Johns Hopkins University Press. "She's led the whole zoo wildlife-contraception program, countrywide," says Lynn Patton, who works with endangered species at the San Diego Zoo, and for whom Asa advised on an implant to be used on giraffes.
When it comes time for Godfrey's electrojaculation, two dozen onlookers have amassed in the Minnesota wildlife center's lab. The audience includes a smattering of graduate students, as well as a clutch of teens from a nearby alternative high school.
In a gloved hand Asa holds a foot-long phallic wand of molded gray epoxy, crowned with a trio of copper electrodes. It is her rectal probe. "It's not a dildo," she reminds.
Godfrey lies on his side, knocked out and keeping his ketamine visions to himself. Three scientists take hold of the wolf's legs as Asa lubes her probe. When she inserts it into Godfrey's rectum, the rationale for restraining the sedated wolf becomes clear. His legs kick violently when Asa flips the switch.
But his penis spews only a few drops of semen. So Asa tries again, and again, increasing the current each time. Godfrey's penis grows longer, thicker, purpler. At 150 milliamps, she coaxes a healthy squirt.
"Your birthday ejaculation!" Callahan exclaims. "How exciting!"
"That sample looks cloudy," Asa notes. She passes the sample to Bauman, who places it under the microscope.
"I like cloudy," Bauman says.
"How about creamy?" Asa says, breaking into routine.
"Creamy's even better," Bauman says. From the freezer she takes several vials containing what she calls "sperm extender," a homemade brew that increases the volume of a sample and neutralizes any urine that may have snuck in. She should have removed them earlier; now they're too cold.
One of the scientists suggests putting them down her shirt.
"Is that really your warmest place?" Thomassen inquires.
"No," says Bauman, "but it's the only place I'm putting it."
The group howls.
Now Thomassen demonstrates the delicate art of his intrauterine technique, easing a foot-long catheter inside Cecily, the tranquilized female. After he successfully threads the catheter past the wolf's cervix, he removes it in order to guide Bauman through the process.
Having deposed a syringeful of semen, Bauman takes several of the scientists' jackets and props them under Cecily's rump. "She's gotta lay there with her butt up in the air for a while so the sperm doesn't get away," she explains -- a scenario familiar to human couples who have to make a special effort to become pregnant.
As he cleans up, Thomassen says he's 90 to 95 percent certain Cecily will get pregnant -- about the same likelihood as if she'd copulated wolf-style. Bauman, meanwhile, is extracting a fecal sample to discern whether they've caught the wolf at the right stage of ovulation. The feces are flecked with red beads, which were mixed with her food in order to identify which dung is hers. Some yellow beads are present as well -- an indication she's been eating another wolf's feces, Bauman says. More giggles.
But the fun is cut short a few minutes later, when Bauman takes a break to find out whether she's within range to check her voicemail.
"Frijole's in heat!" she announces.
It takes but a moment for Asa to decide they'll drive back to St. Louis right away, despite the snowy roads and the fact that it'll take all night to get home. This is the one time during the year that Frijole will be in heat, and she'll stay that way for only four days at most.
The bad news back home: Frijole has been copulating with her mate Alano, for days. Repeatedly. Uncontracepted. The kind of copulation that will almost assuredly get her pregnant.
That's the bad news. The good news is that wolves give birth in litters, not individually. Odds are good that Frijole will have more than one pup, and those pups could have different fathers. Which means there's still room for Dude.
Asa wields her probe once more. Dude produces cloudy semen (just the way Bauman likes it). A month later, an ultrasound indicates that Frijole is pregnant. A wolf's gestation period is about 60 days; she's due to give birth this week or next.
Asa is pleased with the way Thomassen's visit went. Besides Frijole, the center managed to successfully artificially inseminate two other Mexican grays, which are due to give birth soon. Additionally, the species' numbers were upped earlier this month at the center when two Mexican grays that had been impregnated naturally spawned eighteen pups between them.
Without a trace of irony, the expert sums up this year's mating season: "Wolves have much better sperm than humans."