Birds, Bees or Both? Challenging what’s “natural”

As this summer marks fifty years since the Stonewall riot – a landmark anniversary in the history of LGBT rights – one South Cumbrian attraction is highlighting the striking diversity of the animal kingdom, and asking: are humans playing catch up?

Jack Williams, manager of the Lakeland Wildlife Oasis at Milnthorpe, South Cumbria, is passionate about spreading the message of acceptance through dialogue and education. He believes the simple acceptance of the range of behaviours now observed in most animal societies is a fantastic example we could benefit from copying. And of course it puts the lie to claims of bisexuality or homosexuality being “unnatural” and likewise sex or gender being about a straightforward story of being born one thing or the other.
So this summer, the Oasis will be offering a series of activities to tie in with local Pride celebrations in Lancaster and Morecambe. An event caught my eye – a special late night ‘Birds and Bees’ evening on Saturday July 6, from 6pm.
I was pleased to get to chat with Jack about this new initiative for the zoo.

“The idea came from communicating with other zoos and last summer we were at a British & Irish Association of Zoos & Aquariums conference on invertebrates – bugs, cockroaches, snails, slugs, you name it – and the collection manager from an agricultural college in Yorkshire did a presentation on how they took giant African land snails to their local pride.
“They took snails because they are naturally hermaphrodites so they are able to fulfil the traditional roles of both male and female – with most species, as long as you’ve got two snails they can reproduce. That opened up conversation about breaking gender norms and how the animal kingdom doesn’t actually follow the male/female ‘traditional’ route at all.
“And it made me think – this is something I’ve not considered doing, it’s really valid and as a scientific institution we have a responsibility to educate people and highlight the wonders of nature to everyone who comes through our doors.
“We called it the birds and the bees as everyone remembers that primary school lesson, the “birds and the bees” talk and you were taught that ‘it’ works a certain way. So we are bringing that phrase back from your childhood and using it teach it from the animal kingdom and how there is this massive colour palette – you name it, that diversity is there.”

Jack explains; “The staggering diversity of the animal kingdom is inspiring. Same sex pairing is not just normal, it’s common, scientifically observed in 1,500 animal species, from insects to fish, birds and mammals. Add in hermaphrodite species and those which change their behaviour or gender, and you start to appreciate the wonderful range of natural animal behaviour.”

A previously overlooked and even censored part of scientific research, diverse sexual habits are now believed to also strengthen societal bonds in creatures including primates, bears, beetles, bats, dolphins, flamingos, owls, salmon and sheep. Scientists now agree it’s hard to argue that sexual diversity is unnatural.

I wondered about that term hermaphrodite – and whether the suggestion animals could choose to change sexual behaviour could reinforce the idea that gay and bi people could ‘choose’ to be straight.
“What’s difficult for us as a scientific institution – the term hermaphrodite, in scientific circles and speaking about things like invertebrates and fish – it’s the correct word to use, whereas it’s quite slanderous when used incorrectly about a person. Rest assured we use it directed at our living collections of animal species and not about intersex people!
“On changing behaviour, we can’t know the reasons why animals do what they do. For instance we have a pheasant on site that was born female and she has moulted and now displays male plumage. That happened within the space of a year – it’s probably a hormonal change but there’s also a behavioural change as we see completely different behaviour, which became more aggressive as male pheasants tend to be! But at the same time still laying eggs. “
Jack adds: “It’s so exciting the animal kingdom could help spread understanding. I’m lucky to work in the zoo community, where scientific open mindedness really promotes tolerance and inclusivity.
“We’re looking forward to celebrating every aspect of diversity on the Pride marches, and to sharing some amazing stories and research in our ‘Birds and Bees’ evening. If you’re curious – come along!”

The Lakeland Wildlife Oasis list all their animals and upcoming events, including the ‘Birds and Bees’ evening on 6th July, at www.wildlifeoasis.co.uk, and check out ‘Lakeland Wildlife Oasis’ on Facebook for daily updates and pictures.