February 14, 2014 at 9:16 am

Love's in the air at the Detroit Zoo

Two domestic bactrian camels share a moment at the Detroit Zoo on Thursday. In the wild, males of the species often make their rounds among many females. (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)

Love hurts — even for an 850-pound polar bear.

Triton came to the Detroit Zoo from Rhode Island to breed, and the object of his affection was Icee, a captive-born female also there in hopes of making baby bears.

But not with Triton. Handlers deemed the couple genetically incompatible and kept them apart.

Triton constantly moaned for his crush and watched for any glimpse of her through the window in his enclosure — all the while ignoring three other potential mates that zookeepers had chosen for him.

“He was just being completely pathetic,” said Scott Carter, life sciences officer at the zoo, in Royal Oak.

Animals, it seems, are not all that different than humans when it comes to matters of the heart. Geese and cranes pine for specific individuals and stick with one partner for life. Chimps are promiscuous and hop from mate to mate, and two-humped bactrian camels often make their rounds among many females in the wild. Certain male birds woo sweethearts with shiny objects and dancing, while some female cattle fight each other to be with the perfect male.

Their love lives and rituals will be the focus of the Detroit Zoo’s third annual “Love Gone Wild,” a sold-out dinner and presentation about the mating habits of some of the park’s 2,600 animals. Tonight, Carter will come armed with pictures and in-depth accounts of love, sex and anything related to animal mating habits.

“It’s very light-hearted,” he said. “It’s a little bit of a biology lesson at times, but it’s intended entirely for entertainment.”

Valentine’s Day is a big marketing opportunity for zoos across the country, said Alan Sironen, a board member of the Zoological Association of America. Some warmer climate zoos often host “Sweetheart Safaris,” others have presentations on the sizes of animal hearts. In neighboring Ohio, the Toledo Zoo is planning a wine-tasting event.

“It’s the time people are thinking about love,” Sironen said. “It’s a fun, unconventional night out.”

Polar bear couple not shy

Betsie Meister, associate curator of mammals at the Detroit Zoo, said polar bear couple Talini and Nuka like to get, er, physical in the zoo’s pool, right in front of visitors.

Talini, by the way, is Triton’s daughter. He eventually gave up on his dream girl, and settled for Barle (pronounced Bear-lah), a lovely 500-pound female rescued from a Mexican circus.

It’s not the happy ending Triton sought; he was transferred to the Indianapolis Zoo. He and Icee have since died.

“For whatever reasons, bears are individuals,” Carter said. “Something about Triton liked something about Icee. We didn’t expect it; it was an interesting learning experience for us.”

Some details of animal intimacy can be a touch embarrassing. Lions, for example, have tremendous stamina and can mate almost constantly for up to three and four days in a row.

“It’s the stuff of legends,” Sironen said.

And the Detroit Zoo’s Meister remembers one mating polar bear, Norton, fell asleep in the middle of the act on top of his partner.

“He was worn out, apparently,” she said.

All these shenanigans are proof that animals and humans have a lot in common when it comes to love, lust, and the search for a mate, said Janice Siegford, assistant professor in the department of animal science at Michigan State University.

“There’s some pretty interesting work showing the different kind of neurotransmitters and hormones that light up when animals court,” she said. “There’s a lot of similarities on the biological level.”

Not just mating to procreate

Studies have shown that some animals don’t just mate to procreate. Some, such as Triton, demonstrate emotional feelings toward others.

“You may have particular animals who choose to rest next to each other or choose to mutually groom each other,” she said. “There really is a biological response to gestures.”

And, it turns out, animals have learned a few things from humans.

There’s a story of a reluctant shark at the London Aquarium that needed a little music to get into the mating mood. Among the songs played: “My First, My Last, My Everything.”

The takeaway?

“Barry White works for everybody,” Siegford said.

mmartinez@detroitnews.com
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A pair of polar bears play at the Detroit Zoo, which is hosting a program ... (Betsie Meister / The Detroit Zoo)