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'Animal Match.com': How Zoo Knoxville is trying to help save animals from extinction

You may think Valentine's Day is just for humans. But animals at Zoo Knoxville are part of their own matchmaking network.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — You may think Valentine's Day is just for humans. 

But animals at Zoo Knoxville are part of their own matchmaking network.

"We call it Match.com for animals," said Phil Colclough, Zoo Knoxville's Director of Animal Care, Conservation and Education. 

Yep, even animals are looking for love, and they're getting a little help from their human keepers. 

"There are species survival plans. We call them SSP's for short," Colclough said. "Those are scientifically designated plans that provide for this animal to make sure it's paired correctly with the genetics of another animal to maintain these animals in captivity in the most genetically pure way that we can."

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So, it's not the most romantic method, but the Zoo says it's a very important means of saving animals from extinction.

Zoo Knoxville is part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an elite network of experts that are calculating and mapping each animal's genetics. 

That's thousands of animals at zoos all over the country, including most of Zoo Knoxville's approximately 750 to 800 animals. 

Zoo Knoxville has two SSP's on staff, one for tortoises and one for red pandas, two programs the Zoo has been very successful with. 

"Who's born, who's died, who's past sexual maturity, who's coming into sexual maturity," Colclough said.

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Sound complicated?

Colclough said geography, transportation and weather can complicate getting animals to the right places. For instance, he had to fly with 5-year-old Malayan tiger Arya from Fresno, Calif., to Knoxville. 

Plus, the animals have to like each other, and no science can predict that. 

"We give them free choice, you have to know the natural history of these animals as how they would encounter each other in the wild," Colclough said. 

The Zoo said Arya was recommended to mate with one of Zoo Knoxville's male tigers, either Tanvir or Bashir. They said Arya wasn't so much into Tanvir as she is into Bashir. 

"You can see eye contact, you can see they chuffed each other, which is kind of a friendly call," Colclough said. 

The Zoo hopes this interaction could bring tiger cubs this spring. Zoo Knoxville has been successful with matching or breeding red pandas, tortoises, white rhinos and in the 1970s, the first African elephant in the Western Hemisphere was born. 

Colclough said the SSP program originally had the long term goal of releasing some of the animals back to the wild. Now he says there are environmental and geopolitical issues that aren't safe for some animals to return. 

"The whole reason for all this genetic mapping and making sure everything is as it's supposed to be as far as with tiger A and tiger B is to maintain the captive population as if it were a wild population, genetically, making sure there's no inbreeding of these animals," Colclough said. "If the day ever came, yay, maybe we could release them back into the wild if things drastically changed in some of these countries. Zoos in some cases will be the only places these animals will exist." 

RELATED: Nation's oldest living giraffe enters final days at Zoo Knoxville


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