Kung poo panda

"The Sex Lives of Animals" exhibit digs deep.

BEARING IT ALL: Olsen's sculptures demonstrate panda positions

Photograph: Courtesy of Museum of Sex

While any Discovery Channel enthusiast is well versed in animal mating habits, it’s highly unlikely that the average viewer has ever witnessed necrophilic mallards or blowhole intercourse among Amazon River dolphins. However, “The Sex Lives of Animals,” opening Thursday 24 at the Museum of Sex, aims to enlighten the public on the nonreproductive carnal proclivities of nature’s creatures. Occupying the museum’s first-floor gallery, the show reveals orally inclined sheep, masturbating walruses, voyeuristic flamingos, same-sex penguin pairings and a deer ménage à trois that would definitely be inappropriate for Bambi. These and other unorthodox acts are documented in photographs, videos and research culled from evolutionary biologists, zoologists and primatologists. Attention is also given to astonishing anatomical features, such as the phallic structures found on female spotted hyenas, the bright turquoise scrotums on vervet monkeys and the extraordinarily long penises on Argentine lake ducks.

To complement the scientific findings, MoSex commissioned Brooklyn artist Rune Olsen to create an installation of five life-size paper sculptures bearing graphic drawings of frisky fauna in compromising positions. One work depicts a troubled tryst between two pandas (notoriously bad at reproducing, the bamboo-loving bears are sometimes shown “panda porn” to encourage the survival of their species). Another portrays a randy bonobo carrying sugarcane—perhaps the zoological equivalent of a dinner at Per Se—in an effort to woo a female. And Olsen’s pieces aren’t only about hetero hookups: A second bonobo sculpture has two female apes engaged in genital-to-genital rubbing. In fact, animal homosexuality—a topic ignored by many mainstream animal shows—is a major theme of the exhibit.

“Nature shows are supposed to be family-friendly,” says Stanford University biology professor Joan Roughgarden, the author of Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People. “Family-friendly is understood by the right-wingers as not saying anything about sex, and definitely not saying anything about same-sex relationships.” And the reluctance of academics to share accounts of such behaviors is another reason why you may not see them on PBS anytime soon. “What happens to a scientist who says, ‘I went into the field and saw lesbian bonobos’?” asks curator Sarah Jacobs. “It can totally disrupt somebody’s entire career.”

It’s not just potentially scandalous field notes for which Jacobs wants to provide a safe haven. The exhibit devotes a display to original drawings from And Tango Makes Three, a critically acclaimed—and puritanically panned—children’s book that follows the true tale of Roy and Silo, a pair of male penguins at the Central Park Zoo who jointly adopted a chick. (Though the G-rated story merely saw the birds playing house, its depiction of an alternative family unit garnered it a top spot on the American Library Association’s annual list of works drawing complaints from parents and library patrons.) The book’s wholesome focus on friendship and familial bonding should help clear any misconception that copulation among beasts is nothing more than a series of random encounters. “People seem to think that sex between animals is anonymous and wanton,” says Roughgarden. “But animals are quite deliberate in how they make relationships, and their patterns of sexuality are not blind expressions of lust.”

In addition to educating people on the birds and the bees, Jacobs hopes that the exhibit will inform public discourse on the complexities of human sexuality . “We need to be thinking about how diverse the world is,” says Jacobs. “Maybe if we open our minds, we’ll be more accepting of our own relationships.”

“The Sex Lives of Animals” opens Thu 24. See Museums.

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