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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Ernesto the lovelorn anteater gets a German wife called Erica to start a family - only for zoo to discover 18 months later that Erica is an Eric

By Jamie Welham

Doomed from the start: After months trying to get anteaters Erica (pictured) and Ernesto to mate, zookeepers at Marwell Wildlife in Winchester finally realised the reason the pair weren't hitting it off - she was actually a he

Sometimes it takes a little time to make a relationship work.

At least that’s what zookeepers in Hampshire thought as they spent 18 months trying to ignite a little passion between lonely giant anteater Ernesto and Erica, a mate shipped in from Germany especially to keep him company.

Despite their best efforts, however, the pair seemed to experience feelings of naked aggression rather than affection.

But if the keepers were frustrated by their failure, that must have been nothing compared to the frustration being felt by poor Ernesto.

For he was only too well aware of something his human handlers hadn’t realised .  .  . that Erica was in fact an Eric.

The extraordinary blunder came about because anteaters have small and well-concealed sexual organs, making it difficult to distinguish males from females.

Zookeepers at Marwell Wildlife near Winchester discovered their error after anaesthetising the German animal and examining it under a microscope.

Ant-enatal: Ernesto is enjoying the company of his new, genuinely female, mate Inti, with the pitter-patter of tiny paws now a distinct possibility

John Pullen, curator of mammals, said: ‘We wanted to be part of a breeding programme because Ernesto is one of the most popular attractions at the zoo and giant anteater numbers are low.

'We found a female mate for Ernesto at a zoo in Germany and brought her over.

‘When Erica arrived, we spent some time mixing them so that they could get used to each other. They were a little aggressive to each other but that isn’t unusual at first.

‘But it transpired that something was wrong. They became very aggressive and just didn’t get along. We got Erica out to have a closer look and it turned out she was a he.

‘Anteaters can be quite dangerous. They have really sharp claws, so we didn’t take the decision to do something like that lightly.’

Tender moment: Seven-year-old Ernesto touches snouts with his new beau

Staff had separated Ernesto and Erica for the first two months using a glass screen dividing the pen. The screen was punctured with small holes so they could touch noses, and the encounters were watched closely by keepers.

The pair were then gradually allowed to spend more and more time mixing with each other in the same pen.

Anteaters live for up to 26 years, can grow to 7ft long and weigh as much as 100lb.

The giant anteater is the largest species of anteater and is known for its long nose, used to ferret out ants and termites. The species is under threat of extinction in its native ­Central and South America.

But at least it seems a happy ending is in store for seven-year-old Ernesto. He now has a new mate, from Denmark, who has proved beyond doubt that she is a she.

‘We know we’ve got a female because she has had a baby previously,’ Mr Pullen said.

‘Already they get on really well. I’m confident we will have a baby anteater on its way.’



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