Online dating jungle opens up for animals

Attention, amorous guys: Killarney's an Australian cutie, but woo her with care.

The feisty gal once swatted at a beau who got a little close and gave another poor fellow the cold shoulder during their introduction.

Undaunted, Killarney's friends keep updating her online profile in the hope of finding her Mr. Right. Like many of her contemporaries, the koala might find her dream date waiting somewhere in the files of a computerized matchmaking service, keepers at the Riverbanks Zoo theorize.

Just like the digital dating services that pair up people, so-called studbooks are used to match most animals held in captivity. The databases containing information on sex, age and weight – not so much about favorite comfort foods or long walks on the beach – are used by more than 200 zoos nationally and some internationally. They're practically taking the place of Mother Nature in the not-so wild world of captive animal breeding.

Now, new software is going to the Web, promising more easily accessible data, faster matches and – in a page out of the most particular of human dating sites – details on an animal's personality to ease what can be a testy process.

Zoos won't be required to document the turn-ons and turn-offs of each animal in Zoological Information Management Systems, a collaboration between about 150 zoos and aquariums that's a year or two away from wide distribution.

At the very least, though, the software will give zookeepers better access to species-level details currently found only in zoo husbandry manuals that now are mostly e-mailed back and forth, said Bob Wiese, director of collections for the Zoological Society of San Diego.

While there's no candlelight or Marvin Gaye being played in the back rooms of zoos, there are endless tricks used to get the animals in the mood, said Wiese, widely considered the authority on ZIMS. In China, breeding experts have claimed success putting giant pandas in the mood by showing them images of other pandas mating – panda porn, as it's been called.

“There are some frogs that you have to simulate rain for or they won't come out and breed,” Wiese said. “Other frogs, they just need to hear the sound of rain and the sound of lightening and thunder. That's what sets off their hormones.”

Around since the 1980s in paperback form, most of today's studbooks are in computerized databases. Basic information such as family tree, medical history, age and weight are entered by studbook keepers, then sent to a central location where the data is analyzed and converted into a “master plan” for breeding.