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The Pandemic Has Kept Humans Apart. But At Zoos, A Baby Boom Emerges

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This pandemic has made mating rituals among humans difficult - estimated half a million fewer babies have been born than the previous year. But zoo animals have been begetting. Zoos across the world report more babies than expected during the pandemic. The sloths at the Cincinnati Zoo couldn't stay six feet apart. Giant pandas are often afflicted with challenges for mating in captivity. But the matriarch at the National Zoo got pregnant right after lockdown. And at the Houston Zoo, three weeks is all it took for one male bongo to impregnate three females.

Kevin Hodge is curator there at the Houston Zoo. Thanks very much for joining us, Mr. Hodge.

KEVIN HODGE: Yeah, I'm happy to be here.

SIMON: Congratulations on - I guess we call this a new generation of boomers at your zoo, don't we? - pandemic boom.

HODGE: Pandemic boomers, yes. I like that. Yeah, it's been quite the busy year. And, you know, when the pandemic first hit Houston, one of the things that we were concerned about with having to close the zoo for a short time is our revenue coming in and the funding. And so one of the things that we said was we want to put a hold on breeding right now because bringing more mouths to feed could be hard to sustain long term. We weren't sure how long we were going to have to be closed. And so despite putting a hold on breeding, we had quite a few babies and quite a few significant births here at the zoo.

SIMON: Why do you think this is happening? I mean, you folks at the zoo must be asking that question of yourselves and each other.

HODGE: Yeah. You know, it was a surprise. And so one - some of the things were just odd to us. In fact, our lesser Madagascar hedgehog tenrecs that we have at the zoo - that's a long name - we had separated the couple. We separated the male and female. And they'd been separated for about 89 days. And the best that we could tell before, gestation was anywhere from 42 to 49 days. They were separated for 89 days, and then the female still gave birth to three babies. And it surprised us. We thought that was longer - way longer, almost twice the time - than a normal gestation is. And those babies were tiny, just about 10 grams whenever they were born. And that was the first time at our zoo that we had had baby tenrecs in a very long time.

I've done some work in the - in Borneo before. And one of the things that they talked about there was occasionally there is something called a mass fruiting cycle where all the fruit trees seem to produce an abundance of crop at the same time, which then leads to an abundance of animals being born. The resources are there. And they're not sure why that happens, but occasionally you'll just have more than you expect or more than you count on.

SIMON: Kevin Hodges is a curator at the Houston Zoo. Thanks so much. I feel like we should send a dozen roses.

HODGE: Yeah. We'll take a dozen roses. In fact, we'll take a dozen roses, and our insects would love to eat them, too (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOING TO THE ZOO")

PETER, PAUL AND MARY: (Singing) We're going to the zoo, zoo, zoo. See the elephant with a long trunk swinging - great big ears and a long trunk swinging - snuffing up peanuts with the long trunk swinging. And we can stay all day. We're going to the zoo, zoo, zoo. How about you, you, you? You can come, too, too, too. We're going to the zoo, zoo, zoo. See all the monkeys. They're scritch, scritch scratching - jumping around and scritch, scritch scratching. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.