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L.A. Zoo event to spotlight love, animal style

Most grown-ups think they know about the birds and the bees, but if you really want to get the inside scoop about animals "dating, mating, and cohabitating," the Los Angeles Zoo will be hosting a unique celebration called "Sex and the City Zoo" this Saturday night from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Zoo's Witherbee Auditorium.

The evening promises to be a romantic affair for humans and nonhumans alike, with desserts and wines, up-close encounters with small beasts and their zookeepers, a three-course dinner, and a fascinating, provocative lecture by L.A. Zoo General Curator Beth Schaefer on animal love rituals from her many years of experience observing on the front lines.

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Animal mating habits are the subject of much outlandish amateur speculation and pop psychology, but, as Schaefer explains it, "The one thing you can say is that mating strategies vary a lot from species to species — everything from lifetime monogamy to gang rape."

A fun and exuberant speaker with decades of experience in animal care, Schaefer has seen it all: everything from Australian echidnas with four-headed penises (they only use two at a time) to coral that release their sperm en masse — not the most romantic creatures in the deep. Some species won't mate if there's competition, some species won't mate without it. There's bisexuality and homosexuality, gender-bending of several sorts, masturbation, and even orgies. Then, there's the dark side of love. "Of course, the female praying mantis eats the male," Schaefer says shruggingly, "but only after she's finished with him."

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Not all relationships end so brusquely. "Otters are really monogamous," Schaefer says. "They make a nice family unit. But the girls get pregnant very fast — in a few weeks. They're kind of the Rizzos of the animal world!" (Rizzo, of course, is the Pink Lady in "Grease" who gets knocked up.)

Animal courtship isn't all monkey business. The L.A. Zoo and Botanical Gardens contains around 1,100 animals representing some 250 different species, many of which are rare or endangered. Keeping those species alive sometimes requires finding partners from other zoos and habitats all around the world — and the Zoo administration must act as a kind of animal dating service. Often, finding the right mate, "genetically speaking," is not any easier for them than it is for us. The Zoo even looks out for those primates that don't make the "alpha" cut, forming all-male ape clubs that genuinely act as support groups.

Schaefer has been working with animals since 1985 when she started as a vet's assistant. After a stint as Animal Keeper Aide at the Charles Paddock Zoo, she went on to manage the wild ones at Kansas City Zoo and Disney's Animal Kingdom, and later became Curator of Primates and Carnivores at the Houston Zoo. As General Curator, she oversees the entire animal collection — who comes in, who lives where — kind of like a museum curator — but unlike most museum curators, her exhibits might end up sleeping together and making baby exhibits.

The knowledge she shares at this event promises to be eye-opening as well as entertaining for attending couples. In every anecdote, another aspect of human love and relationships is revealed. "Lions are typical cats," Schaefer says. "The men are lazy. The women do all the work, all the hunting. And the men want to mate as often as possible to make sure it's their offspring."

"The world of animal mating rituals can be strangely fascinating," Schaefer adds. "But the main thing, I think, is that we're not very different. There's so many similarities in what humans go through to attract a partner."

A question-and-answer will follow the lecture, and, for an additional fee, guests can attend a three-course dinner from 7 to 9 p.m. at Reggie's Bistro inside the Zoo. Tickets are $40 per person, plus an additional $75 per person for the dinner option, or $30 per person for GLAZA members, with the dinner option an additional $65 per person. A special optional beer or wine pairing is available for an additional $15. Seating is limited, and reservations are required.

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What: "Sex and the City Zoo"

Where: Witherbee Auditorium, Los Angeles Zoo, Griffith Park

When: Saturday, Feb. 13.

More info: (323) 644-6001, www.lazoo.org/sexandthecityzoo/

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DANIEL WEIZMANN is a regular contributor to Marquee.

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