How far would you go for science? No matter what your answer, there is an elite cadre of scientists who have dedicated their lives to going a lot further. Meet the sperm collectors. They're doing it to make the world a better place.
Why, Why, Why?
At best, this procedure is going to result in a war story told to younger scientists. At worst, it’s going to end in a once starry-eyed intern quietly crying in a corner. Why it something like this necessary? Surely the entire point of evolution is that animals can do this on their own. Thanks to us, it has become a little complicated.
Agriculture looks like a sure bet for species survival, but it’s fickle. Navajo Churro sheep were introduced into America half a millennia ago. They were the standard for wool production for centuries. Before industrialization, they numbered in the millions. When it was discovered that their wool was unfit for industrial purposes, the population plummeted. Nowadays, they’re seen on a few farms, and in zoos that preserve “heritage breeds.” In the 1970s, when the conservation effort first got started and people seriously thought the sheep might be wiped out, scientists and conservationists stockpiled sperm as a genetic reserve. The same principle applies to more well-known endangered species all over the world.
And then there are the labs and the zoos. Sometimes, scientists just need a semen sample. Sometimes they need a supply for directed breeding. And occasionally, they just need cooperation. Bonobos are well-known as the kinder, gentler alternatives to chimpanzees. They’re well-known for being one of the most sex-centered primates out there. (The only primates that beat them on that score are the ones reading this article. Shame on you.) What they’re not particularly well-known for is the demands of both males and females of a little gesture of reassurance and goodwill before they participate in laboratory experiments. This is one of the few areas in which the animals are much more willing to donate than the researchers are to receive.
How, How, How?
The process that unfortunate bonobo researchers go through is hardly a mystery – much as we might wish it were. Other practices are more involved, but only just. Zookeepers tend to do a similar job when they want to breed two animals that, for reasons of sexual inexperience or difference in temperament, wouldn’t get along naturally. For some species, the process is gradual. Elephants are slowly accustomed to a delay in a certain narrow box-like structure on their way to their food or their shelter. Keepers get them more accustomed to contact until it’s just another routine. Other species get a more abrupt treatment. Crocodiles are anesthetized and, I quote, “tickled,” to get semen samples.
Those scientists have it easy. At least they get gloves, and hands are relatively easy to wash. Unfortunate ornithologists have a tougher time of it, both physically and psychologically. Birds tend to imprint on whatever raises them, and rare birds that are raised by humans are not interested in others of their own species. In their minds they are human and should mate with a human. The researchers don’t agree, but they are willing to compromise a lot to save endangered species. To collect the semen, they are given a hat with a sturdy and liquid-proof brim. The birds have to bond to the hat and the keeper over time. This does not just involve spending time with the bird. The keeper has to mimic the calls of the bird’s species, as well as the courting behaviors. Essentially, they’re dating the bird for weeks, or even months. Eventually they form a pair bond, and the hat comes into play. The bird will mate with the hat, and the semen will collect in the brim.
It’s not surprising that some researchers would wish to skip these steps, and so it’s to their credit that an easy solution is no longer regularly used. One of the quickest ways to collect sperm, from mammals at least, was an electric shock. Inserting a metal probe into the animal’s rectum and delivering a shock triggered involuntary ejaculation, and the sperm was collected quickly. While the method might have left the handler’s dignity intact, it caused trauma and occasional injury to the animal.
Popular nowadays are surrogate females. It turns out that male animals, especially farm animals, are not picky when it comes to how their mates look. The surrogate is pretty much just a leather-covered plank with a strategicly-placed opening. Different companies make this for different animals. In order to train the males, all the farmer needs to do is splash the dummy with semen, male saliva, and female urine. (They’re also advised to make sure that the dummy is sturdy and has no sharp edges, so as not to spook young males.) After that, all they need to do is fit the opening on the dummy with a collecting flask or a “nonpermeable latex reservoir,” the phrasing of which, given all the euphemisms I have used during this article, I can hardly criticize. One cattle sire company brags that it can, using this method, collect nearly two thousand gallons of semen per year.
No, No, No!
Few people would head their resume with these qualifications, but without the techniques outlined above, the world would be a different place – and not just because our turkey would have less white meat. Some would argue that farming would be better if the animals involved were not so far removed from natural evolutionary processes. They might be right. Still, semen collected by scientists, instead of comely females of the same species, has helped some species back from the brink and increased the genetic diversity of others. And this may not be the last time it makes the difference.
The Audubon Frozen Zoo has “genetic material,” from endangered animals the world over. They’ve got semen from the sandhill crane to the Sumatran tiger, representing not only hopes for the future but what have to be hilarious stories from the past. (The sandhill crane is four feet tall and had to have mated with one hell of a hat.) A little indignity may, one day, prove to have kept an entire species from going extinct. In the meantime, it allows some human species to get a little perspective on how animals are handled – and on the demands of their own jobs.