My friends and I were making fun of a cat in heat when we began a heated argument. Do cats have orgasms? Do they appreciate sexual pleasure akin to that of humans?
Except for one dissident, we all agreed that they must have sexual pleasure. The dissident argues that it is a simple matter of instinct for animals and they just want to reproduce. I've got to admire her for sticking to her guns even though I disagree with her. Is it even possible to tell? Can you measure their brain waves or something?
--Way Too Concerned About Cat Orgasms in Wisconsin
Since there's not much difference between big kitties and little kitties--tigers are basically enormous house cats--I thought a zookeeper could offer a stimulating perspective on cats in heat. Perhaps a death-defying perspective: house cats in heat will take on pencils, furniture, humans, anything at all. My family's cat humped my father's Chevy Nova--god alone knows what a tiger in heat might do to an unsuspecting zookeeper. So I called Lincoln Park Zoo on the north side of Chicago. I grew up in Chicago. Lincoln Park Zoo is the zoo my parents took me to on Sunday afternoons; the zoo my grade-school classes went to on sunny-day field trips; the zoo where when I was five years old I stunned medical professionals by throwing up nearly three times my body weight in cotton candy, hot dogs, ice cream, Milk Duds, and french fries--all over the floor of the Great Ape House. So, I thought I'd be true to my zoo and call the nice folks at Lincoln Park Zoo, site of so many happy childhood memories.
"I don't know anything about that," said Kelly McGrath, Lincoln Park Zoo's director of communications, when asked about big-cat orgasms. I asked if I could speak with someone who might know something about it, someone on the front lines, tossing steaks to lions, running from tigers in heat, jerking off boy cheetahs for the cheetah breeding program: a zookeeper. "No, we can't help you. You can't talk to the zookeepers." Why not? "I'll ask them your question for you, and then I'll get back to you, but the answer is no." Pretty please? "I'll ask them for you. If there's something interesting or pertinent to Lincoln Park Zoo, or some light they can shed on this, I will call you back." If I promise not to tap on the glass, can I pretty please talk to one of the actual zookeepers? "You're not a very good listener, Mr. Savage." No, I guess I'm not. But you're not a very good director of communications, Ms. McGrath.
Stonewalled by the Lincoln Park Zoo's uncommunicative director of communications--good thing she's not in charge of safety or there'd be lots of kids mauled to death--I decided I had no choice but to call Chicago's competing zoo, the rich-kids-on-field-trips zoo, the bigger, flashier, suburban Brookfield Zoo, which unlike the free-for-all Lincoln Park Zoo charges admission ($6 for adults, $3 for kids, under three years old free).
"All male mammals have orgasms because that's how they ejaculate," said the helpful, good-humored Brookfield Zoo librarian Nancy Bent. "When it comes to male mammals, you can see they're having orgasms. It's obvious--they ejaculate. But with the females, it's a more difficult question." Unfortunately, Ms. Bent wouldn't let me talk to one of the actual zookeepers either--why can't people talk to zookeepers? are they easily startled? hard to breed? what?--but she had been a zookeeper herself for nine years before becoming one of Brookfield's librarians five years ago and could tell me all I needed to know--and then some. "Some animals experience pleasure from sexual activity. It has been shown that bonobos"--a rare species of pygmy chimpanzees named for the lead singer of U2--"use sex to forge social bonds. But when it comes to sexual pleasure, with female cats it's harder to say. Female cats go into estrus, a fancy word for heat, and they can't ovulate until they've been mated with, and they don't leave estrus until they ovulate." Kitty Katch-22! "One way to bring female house cats out of heat," short of taking #2 pencils to our pusses' pussies, "is to bring her to a vet and let him stimulate her by inserting a rod." (Oddly enough, that's exactly how I stimulate my boyfriend, who is not a cat.) What do zookeepers do with great big cats in heat? Does someone at the zoo have to slink around the cat house with a three-foot-long #200 pencil? "We don't do that with big cats. They're dangerous, they'd hurt you." Probably break your pencil, too. "And since all the big cats are endangered species, we don't spay them--so all our females go into estrus. If we don't want to breed her, she just has to live through it."
So, when they do get bred, do the females get off? Do they dig it? "That's a difficult question. For the male there's definitely pleasure, but it's grayer for the female. When she mates, she's fulfilling something inside herself, a deep urge, but it is actually painful for the female. The male has barbs on his penis, and when he pulls out the barbs scratch the vaginal canal, which stimulates ovulation."
Barbed penises sound like a pretty serious disincentive--why does the female cat do it? "Every hormone in her body is telling her to. You can call it instinct, but that's an overused, catchall term. All animals, including humans, do things because of instinct, and many of them are pleasurable." Do human females have an estrus cycle? "We're one of the few mammals where females don't go into estrus." Why not? "The current evolutionary theory is this: it was better for human children and females to have males around hunting for them, providing protein, protection from other males. And one good way for females to keep the guys around was to always be ready for sex," not just when they went into heat.
Well, gee whiz! Wasn't Nancy helpful and polite? Let's hear it for all the good folks at Brookfield Zoo!
Now, remember Kelly McGrath, Lincoln Park Zoo's director of communications? She promised to speak with the easily startled, hard-to-breed zookeepers and give me a call back. Well, more than a week had gone by, and I hadn't heard from her, so I called her back. "I'm sorry, we're opening a new building," she said. Did she talk to the zookeepers about big-cat orgasms? "I can't remember if I did, but I did send an E-mail over to our hospital..." Suddenly Kelly stops talking. "You're typing? Taking notes? Why?" she demands. I always take notes, I tell her. "Look, I'll find out what I can and I'll call you back." And then the easily startled director of communications hung up. And I haven't heard from her since.
When I have kids, and I'm looking to take the little muffins to a zoo where they can stuff themselves with junk food and puke all over the ape house just like their old man did, you can bet your barbed penis I won't be taking them to Lincoln Park Zoo, but to Brookfield Zoo, where they're not afraid to answer simple questions about big-cat orgasms.
Send questions to Savage Love, Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611.