What a Tiger at the National Zoo Can Tell Us about the Future of Wild Sex

Washington Post photo by Chloe Coleman
Nikita, a female Amur tiger, in the yard at the Great Cats exhibit at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park on April 7 in Washington.

When I met Nikita, the majestic, golden-eyed female Amur tiger at the National Zoo, she might have been pregnant. (We should know any day now; her cubs would be due in June.) But she had never had sex with the father-to-be.

The mate that Smithsonian zookeepers chose for her, a 7-year-old, 375-pound cat named Metis, looked like a good match on paper. But Metis turned out to be less than a tiger in the bedroom. He meekly pursued Nikita in the 11 attempts zookeepers made to mate the pair while Nikita was in her monthly heat. Nikita slipped away, opting only for an occasional platonic nuzzle.

This was arguably a step up for her over her previously arranged mate, a tiger named Pavel who almost killed her in his pursuit of an unwelcome hookup in 2019.

Nikita was artificially inseminated under anesthesia a few weeks before I encountered her in the concrete and chain link maze that lies beneath the zoo’s public exhibit for Great Cats. Zookeepers were, and are, keeping a close pregnancy watch, weighing her and observing hormonal changes in her feces to determine whether she will bear the cubs of a mate she had not chosen. Pacing in an enclosure that could be mistaken for a prison cell, she chuffed like a geyser, her enormous tufted head nodding toward me. Lest you think I am a house pet, I imagined her saying, let me remind you that I am a ferocious beast.

Forgive me here for being hopelessly human, but I wanted to know: Why couldn’t Nikita mate when and if she wanted, with whichever male tiger she wanted?

One answer is that zoos want more tigers for their exhibits. But the deeper reason that Smithsonian zookeepers want Nikita to have cubs is her genetic distinctiveness among captive Amur tigers, also known as Siberian tigers. Zoos originated as menageries kept by monarchs, a vanity-project tradition dating back to ancient Egypt. But today, they bill themselves as arks in an age of extinction – backup drives poised to reboot wild populations of animals that humans force into oblivion by hacking up their habitat, poaching them for parts and heating up the planet. The more genetically diverse the population of tigers kept in captivity, the argument goes, the better they’ll be as an insurance policy.

Nikita’s cubs – if she has them – are likely to live in one zoo or another, Pierre Comizzoli, a research biologist at the National Zoo, tells me. But it’s conceivable that one day in the distant future, her great-grandcubs could be released into the wilds of Siberia or northeast China.

Nikita is by no means the only animal in captivity that, instead of mating as she would in the wild, has been conscripted for the bigger cause of saving her species. The ambition and technology that scientists around the world are marshaling for such rescue missions is reaching extraordinary heights. A new picture of conservation is emerging amid the desperation of an era of mass extinction.

What this portends is a future of less wild animal sex and more advanced technology. (If that hits too close to home for those of you on Zoom and Slack all day, I’m sorry.)

Coming decades will see us build cryobanks filled with sperm and embryo samples from threatened species, and from species that will soon or eventually go extinct. Scientists will construct artificial wombs to incubate baby rhinos and elephants poached to extinction in the wild. Underwater reefs will be rebuilt with coral whose genetic code has been edited to be more adapted to pathogens and the hot, sour oceans of a warmer planet. Out of nostalgia and a faint hope to fill critical niches left vacant in ecosystems, laboratories will engineer new renditions of species long gone and bring them “back” as if to reverse extinction.

Maybe, just maybe – if future generations are lucky – governments and communities will do more than preserve these species in zoos for our amusement. They will band together to restore wild lands to provide habitat for at least some of these animals: expanses of grasslands for elephants, prairie for bison, jungles for orangutan, natural coastlines for sea turtles and forests for mountain gorillas.

The part of this vision that involves technology is being paved in the present. The part that involves political change to rewild the landscape is barely progressing. Conservation-minded scientists have created “frozen zoos” and sperm banks. The Smithsonian has frozen the sperm of more than 100 species, mostly mammals threatened in the wild, and has plans to start a sperm bank to put rare amphibian sperm on ice. Animal husbandry and human fertility tools such as artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization and mate selection are now in common use for captive wild animals like Nikita. Genetic sequencing can be used to document biodiversity and ultimately restore genetic diversity or even engineer new species. In 2020, the first endangered species in the United States was successfully cloned: a black-footed ferret genetically distinct from the ferrets in the wild population, whose cell line was preserved in a cryobank. Some more aspirational labs today are extracting ancient DNA from long-extinct species such as the dodo, passenger pigeon, Tasmanian tiger and woolly mammoth, and attempting to merge it with living animals’ genomes to create new species, a bid that has been (somewhat inaccurately) called “de-extinction.”

What these technologies have in common is that none of them alone will be enough to stop the tidal wave of extinction washing over the planet. Yet humans, where possible, often prefer technological fixes over changes in behavior and policies. We favor the last-ditch panic switch over the sustained slog. What’s actually needed to stave off extinction is to protect entire ecosystems, not just charismatic species, by designating more wildlife refuges, stopping destructive practices such as clear-cutting forests to expand agriculture recklessly into habitats, and engaging communities around the world to protect wildlife from poaching and to conserve natural resources.

“If we get to the point where” breeding technologies are needed, “conservation has failed,” says Michelle Nijhuis, author of “Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction,” a history of conservation efforts. “Once you are down to inseminating the last female of the species, the chances of restoring that population are so low and there are so many obstacles.”

Tigers, lions and cheetahs are particularly complex to reintroduce to the wild. You can’t just plop a tiger down in its would-be habitat. It needs a stable source of prey, Comizzoli says, which might mean first reintroducing deer and antelope. Reintroduced animals, if too successful, can cause the crash of other species, or come into conflict with farmers and rural communities by attacking livestock or spreading pathogens.

But animals bred in captivity have already restored certain wild species on the brink of collapse. The California condor, which was nearly extinguished, is the poster animal for that. A conservation program, based in part at the San Diego Zoo, captured and mated condors in captivity after their numbers fell to as low as 22 birds in the 1980s due primarily to lead poisoning. Researchers estimate that today more than 300 California condors fly in the wild.

“There was a debate: Should we put the remaining birds into zoos and try to breed them?” says Ben Minteer, a professor at Arizona State University and the author of a forthcoming book on zoos called “A Wilder Kingdom.” “If you are a purist about it, you could say, zoos shouldn’t have done that. . . . But I’m glad the condors exist and are in the sky.”

No, you don’t want to be a purist in an age of extinction. Pulling out all the stops is probably worth it for future generations to get a glimpse of northern white rhinos, Amur tigers and Indian elephants. But in the meantime, what does this future mean for the animals in captivity – and for us, who keep them that way? I can’t help but feel a twinge of sadness for the mother orangutan in the Metro Richmond Zoo who recently had to learn how to breastfeed from a zookeeper with a newborn, because of her lack of exposure to another orangutan mother. Or to cringe at the “panda porn” shown to captive animals to ignite their deadened sex drives.

I wondered if it was wrong for me to pity Nikita, who got knocked up under anesthesia with the sperm of a tiger she didn’t click with. Craig Saffoe, the National Zoo’s curator of Great Cats, assured me that tiger sex is too violent to romanticize. “Cat breeding is barbaric. People don’t like to see it.” In captivity, it’s also often deadly, and no zookeeper, Saffoe says, wants the blood of a charismatic zoo creature on their hands.

But in the wild, Nikita would have her choice of mates and more terrain to escape an unwelcome suitor. Female wildcats, Saffoe tells me, like to have lots of options for mates. (Who can blame them?) In captivity with only one male of her species available, Nikita simply cannot live as wild tigers do.

If we want to chart a wilder future, here’s where a new model of conservation could come in, one that merges the idea of zoos as bulwarks against extinction with protection of wildlands. The Smithsonian’s facility for cheetahs in Front Royal, Va., keeps 26 cheetahs on about 11 acres. The female cats have more choices for mating, which makes breeding the old-fashioned way easier, Saffoe says. It takes space and resources to care for more animals, but therein lies a better vision – zoos that look less like cages and more like wildlife refuges, where protected populations can behave more like animals in the wild. Ideally, the strategy would be paired with aggressive habitat conservation and, when necessary, the big guns of biotechnology.

As for sex itself? Maybe a future with less wild sex is not a thing to mourn for the animal kingdom alone. Humans, after all, are not having much sex anymore, studies show. Perhaps we’re suffering from the same conundrum as wildcats in captivity – too confined to our cages and too reliant on technology. Or, maybe, like Nikita, we need a little more leeway to be our wild selves even as we stave off doomsday.