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Facts of life behind cute animal faces

By Andrew Bleiman, Special to CNN
  • Lifelong animal nerd and author shares some interesting facts about favorite animals
  • Andrew Bleiman says flamingos need an audience for their dirty dancing
  • Scientists discover male cheetah noises trigger females to ovulate
  • Bleiman runs a website about cute baby animals at zoos

Editor's note: Andrew Bleiman is a lifelong animal nerd who serves on the auxiliary boards of the Lincoln Park Zoo and Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. He is co-author of "ZooBorns".

(CNN) -- An elephant calf runs through a sprinkler, trunk held high with excitement. An orphan sea otter pup cries noisily until keepers join him in the pool for a swim. A tiny tiger cub sneaks up on its mother and pounces, only to be subjected to a thorough licking.

Scientists believe humans are programmed to find big watery eyes, wobbly first steps and rambunctious play in baby animals cute because it reminds us of our own young. This makes zoo babies especially well suited for connecting people with animals. They are perfect ambassadors for their species.

While they might look small, baby zoo animals are a big deal. Every year, more than 175 million visitors pour into accredited zoos and aquariums in North America. That's more than the annual attendance at NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB events combined. Seeing a baby animal at a zoo is a rare highlight but one that keeps visitors coming back for more.

But behind those big eyes and floppy ears is a secret world of rarely shared stories about how these babies came to be. Zoos are mastering the science of animal breeding in an effort to conserve endangered species. It is part science and part soap opera, at times truly romantic and sometimes just downright weird.

Flamboyant flamingos

In case their bright pink feathers didn't tip you off, flamingos love to be the center of attention. In fact, some might even consider them dirty birds.

While flamingos are loyal to just one mate, they seek out an audience when it's time to make chicks. Without a large flock, they just can't seem to get in the mood. That is because they're a social species with highly ritualized courtship displays that some might call a dance (dirty dancing?).

According to flamingo expert Megan Ross, Ph.D., with Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo in Illinois, "One zoo surrounded their small flock of flamingos with mirrors to trick them into thinking the flock was bigger and spark mating behavior. It worked."

The siamang serenade

These lesser apes in the gibbon family are true romantics. Not only are males and females monogamous -- creating a pair bond for life (something not altogether common in the animal kingdom) -- but they also serenade each other with a special song that is all their own.

The siamang song can be heard for miles, and while a version is used daily as a territorial "keep out" notice to other siamangs in the forest, each couple also creates their own unique duet, which they sing to each other. It doesn't take baby siamangs long to learn their family's special song and join the chorus.

Talk dirty to me

Female cheetahs like dirty talk. Correction, they don't just like it -- they biologically require it in order to make cheetah cubs. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo in California recently discovered a specific vocalization male cheetahs make that actually triggers females to ovulate. Thanks to this Barry White-inspired research, the zoo has successfully bred dozens of these critically endangered cats.

The fertility doctor is in

Anyone who has faced fertility challenges can probably relate to the beloved giant panda. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, there are fewer than 2,500 of these iconic creatures left on the planet, and making babies is downright difficult.

With only three fertile days per year, an ill-timed panda "headache" can be a major problem for species survival. Zoos are mastering the science of wildlife reproductive physiology in order to save the species from extinction.

Lucky for them artificial insemination has been successful. Did I say lucky for them? I meant lucky for us: Who can resist the black and white ball of fluff that is a baby panda?

When in doubt, adopt

In spring, a wild wolf briefly left her den to forage for her two young pups. When she returned there were four pups! One must wonder what she was thinking, but the biologists watching her cared only about what she would do with them.

Thankfully, she adopted them as her own, as nearly all critically endangered red wolves have done since the beginning of the Red Wolf Recovery Project in the late 1980s. This reintroduction program works to restore the wild red wolf population with the participation of institutions like Lincoln Park Zoo, where the two adopted pups were born.

While seeing baby animals makes many of us go all warm and fuzzy inside, there is some serious science behind the softies, and breeding is controlled in accredited zoos through species survival plans to ensure healthy, genetically diverse populations.

The zoos' bottom line is to ensure the world continues to have these beautiful babies for many, many generations ahead.