Friday, April 16, 2010

Zoos: An Opportunity for Sexuality Education

I am a member of the Philadelphia Zoo and from April to October if the weather is nice and I have no other plans I will head to the zoo on a Sunday morning just to walk around for a few hours. It’s relaxing, fun and a great way to clear my head. Since I don’t attend a church it is, in a sense, my way to worship through nature. A few weeks ago on one of those unusually warm spring days I was at the zoo for one of these Sunday morning strolls. I visited the otters who are always one of my favorites because they are always so active and playful as they slip and slide down their waterfalls and swim around chasing one another. On this particular Sunday there were two otters clearly having sex. Standing there watching them were about a dozen families all with young children, as I am usually the only creepy adult at the zoo without kids. All the children were squealing, laughing, pointing at the two otters having sex and asking their parents what the otters were doing. All the parents replied that the otters were wrestling or playing or some other euphemism but none, none, answered honestly that the otters were having sex. Apparently my experience is not unique. On his blog,, Randy Seaver talks about and posts pictures of elephants having sex at the zoo while he was visiting the zoo with his grandchildren.

The field of human sexuality advocates that parents should begin talking about sexuality with children at a young age. Human beings are sexual from birth through death and not talking about sexuality with children can lead to fear, shame and anxiety around sex and sexuality issues. Parents often wait to talk about sexuality with their children until puberty but by then it is too late as children have learned about and received sexuality messages from peers, the media and the rest of the world around them. Or worse, parents never talk to their children about sexuality because they never find an opportunity to bring it up or have a conversation about it. In his book, "The Sexual Life of Children", Martinson talks about how children learn about sexuality in their everyday life yet parents avoid anything that permits or encourages sexuality when it comes to children in an effort to protect them and keep them innocent. Not answering honestly or avoiding sexuality, Martinson goes on to say, leaves the control of sexuality firmly in the hands of adults. Martinson echoes the sentiment of the human sexuality field that it is important for both parents and teachers to be informed about and have an opportunity to discuss sexuality with their children. Parents especially need to facilitate family discussions about sexuality because that is how they can integrate their family’s value system into sexuality. Here are some links that guide parents on how to talk about sexuality with their children:

If you visit any zoo websites from around the country you will see that they have a host of children and school education programs offered on a daily basis. None of these programs address sexuality. The San Francisco and Central Florida zoos offer animal sexuality classes but they are for adults only, and only offered on Valentine’s Day. The following link is someone’s account of the “Woo at the Zoo” program offered at the San Francisco zoo and is complete with pictures and interesting information about animal sexuality:
While some zoos are beginning to incorporate sexuality education into their programs the sexuality information is once again reserved for adults only.

Some people are beginning to use animal sexuality as a way to educate children. Animals are a traditional way to educate children and a staple in children’s literature. Famous stories such as, Aesop’s Fables and Winnie the Pooh, use animal characters or anthropomorphism to tell their tales. Well known children’s authors such as, Richard Scary, argue that animals are great for children’s stories because they are racially and ethnically neutral so they can appeal to all children and they are able to do things or take risks that human children cannot. Sexologists often study animal sexuality and argue that many animal sexual behaviors are found in the human world and vice versa. Animals are often a great way to learn about the nature and variety of sexuality. Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell’s book "And Tango Makes Three" is a children’s book on the different types of families and is based on the true story of three penguins at the Central Park Zoo. Roy and Silo were two male penguins that fell in love, built a nest and were trying to start a family of their own. The zoo keepers gave them their very own egg to care for and hatch and they ended up with a baby of their own, Tango. Richardson and Parnell took advantage of the real life teaching opportunity zoos offer in order to educate children about age appropriate sexuality issues. "And Tango Makes Three" can be purchased at

The otters having sex at the Philadelphia zoo a few weekends ago offered a great teachable moment for parents to begin having conversations with their children about sexuality. Instead of avoiding children’s questions about sex or answering these questions dishonestly parents should seize these opportunities to talk about age appropriate sexuality issues with their children. As sex educators we need to educate parents about sexuality and sexuality education and help them feel comfortable talking about these issues so that they can talk to their children about sexuality when opportunities present themselves, like the otters at the zoo. Zoo staff and school educators also have the opportunity to use animal sexuality as a way to educate and talk with children about sexuality. They provide a population that needs sex educators to educate and guide them in getting children’s sexuality education programs off the ground. Zoos offer both sexuality education opportunities for children and their parents, as well as professional relationships for sex educators.


Bruess, C. and Greenberg, J. (2009). Sexuality Education: Theory and practice, 5th ed. Jones and Bartlett Publishers: Sudbury, MA.
Heasley, R. and Crane, B. (2003). Sexual lives: A reader on the theories and realities of human sexualities. McGraw-Hill: New York, NY.
Martinson, F. M. (1994). The sexual life of children. Bergin and Garvey: Westport, CT.
Strong, B., W. L. Yarber, B. W. Sayad and DeVault, C. (2008). Human sexuality: Diversity in contemporary America. McGraw-Hill: New York, NY.


  1. This brings to mind the developmentally appropriate guidelines developed by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States(SIECUS, n.d.). Level 1 of the developmental guidelines suggest that children between the ages of five and eight are developmentally old enough to understand the concepts of different types of love, sex, having a baby, and that not all individuals can have, or choose to have a baby. What I think is important is to understand ways to express these concepts in language that a child can understand, using a tone that conveys openness to questions, and not angst in talk about the subject of sex.

    Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (n.d.) Guidelines for comprehensive sexuality education (3rd ed.). Retrieved from

  2. I am going to take this blog post in another direction related to the use of the book "And Tango Makes Three." I first heard this story in the summer of ’09 when I took Sex and Law with Dr. Hall. During that class we explored censorship and tried to decide when it may be appropriate. This was the book that we used to debate this controversial process.

    According to the American Library Association, this book was the most banned book in the year 2009 and the most challenged in ’06, ’07 and ’08.

    As I recall, we engaged in a role play where we each presented our arguments to the superintendent of a school district regarding the placement of this book in an elementary school library. Funny enough I played the role of an expert on penguins working in a local zoo! And I used the exact same arguments you presented Brooke about the popular use of animal stories to present sexuality and many other life experiences. I believe I even said the bible used Noah’s Ark and the animals to talk about sex (hey two by two).

    I don’t intend to argue both sides in this blog. I want to introduce the challenge we face in public image because of the books we use to educate children.

    On the one hand we could take the Mark Twain approach. When "Huckleberry Finn" was banned by the Library Committee of Concord, Massachusetts for its coarse language, Twain wrote a friend that the banning was worth the sale of 25,000 copies just by the free publicity alone.

    So in the case of Tango, the more copies sold, the more this information gets out into the hands of parents which ultimately helps the children.

    However, the other response by parents who are fearful of teaching sexuality is to withdraw and not be willing to step into this controversy and be known in their community as a parent who teaches homosexuality to their kids. Or even just teaches sexuality to their kids.

    In helping parents where I work with our first grade sexuality curriculum, THE most common question I get is “how do I tell my child not to talk about this (sex) on the bus?” They are afraid their children will be ostracized for their knowledge and that they as parents will face the same thing.

    There is no right or wrong answer for this. I mention this to heighten our awareness of just how hard it is for parents, and how sometimes our enthusiasm for this kind of material (children’s books) can interfere with recognizing the need to be compassionate to this fear.

    On a related note, when looking up this book on the American Libraries Association website, they related a story about a woman in Lewiston, Maine, who checked out a copy of "It’s Perfectly Normal" and refused to return it so as to keep it out of circulation. The patron refused to respond to an order by the city’s officials to return it or be fined, which she ignored. So, the city’s response? They bought four more copies to replace the one.

    Just sayin'



  3. I can't tell you how many times I've gone to the zoo or the aquarium and have seen various creatures getting it on. I think that if there was an exhibit dedicated to animal mating behaviors would be super interesting. I could see materials that could be offered about "we are all sexual beings" and tie in the mating behaviors with human mating behaviors. It would even give the opportunity to speak about homosexuality, monogamy, polyamory etc.. Think "and tango makes 3" with the penguins.

  4. I've started using nature (plants and animals) as a way to sneak some sex ed into my classroom. I approach it from a compare method. This is the life cycle of a pumpkin, butterfly, etc.. let's think about how this life cycle is like how you grew. Then I showed them pictures of embryos, fetuses, etc and use that vocabulary to describe each stage. We talked about how things were different and the same, at what stages we could make out parts of the animal (human, chicken, etc). I'm not sure if i could swing comparing mating behaviors of plants and parents exactly with first graders, but I bet there's a creative way to tie anything in. Maybe if I did how the babies are born, eggs vs live young, with a two partners versus one parent, etc


  5. In regards to the developmental theories we're learning as well (particularly the notion that we learn by observation of those around us), I wonder how children relate to animals and whether they relate more easily than we do as adults. I have to imagine that they do, considering that the boundaries placed between people/places/things are more tenuous at a younger age.

    Hell, we've been learning about gay animals in the news recently, I am quite convinced there are ALL kinds of teachable moments at the zoo. A creative and fun post!

  6. Talk about a creepy adult roaming around a zoo....when all of the kids were asking what the otters were doing, you should have yelled, "They're having SEX!" Parents would have loved you! ☺ As an animal lover and a sex educator, I think using animals is an excellent method when teaching your children about sex. It shows how natural sex is. I'm shocked that zoos don't have sources for parents to look at. "What are they doing?!?!?" must be the most frequent question asked at a zoo! Animals have no shame. If the mood strikes...

    And Tango Makes Three is an amazing children's book. Even though it was listed as the most banned book in 2008, it shows the purity of homosexuality. I think sex educators around the world should learn from this book and take advantage of such an easy way to introduce sexuality to children.

  7. Great post - another way to utilize animal sex(uality) in the classroom is by talking about same-sex attraction. This Time magazine article is an easy way to let your students know that there humans aren't the only species that exhibit same-sex sexual behaviors.,9171,1582336,00.html