Why do you think they call it wildlife? | Chris Carrel and Amy Johnson

(Brought to you by columnists Chris Carrel of Thinking Locally and Amy Johnson of Sex in the Suburbs)

Sex in the Suburbs: Dear Chris, I hear it’s salmon spawning time again. I’m getting some interest in a workshop on safer sex for salmon. Do you have any thoughts? — Amy

Thinking Locally: I’m not surprised there, Amy. Working with salmon, we hear a lot of questions about sex. And there is a lot of misinformation with the young fish who are fed all these horror stories. They say: “I heard that if I have unprotected sex or pre-marital sex that I’ll die. Is that true?” Unfortunately, the answer is yes, you will die. Then they want to know if they get married if it’ll be OK, and we have to tell them that no, sex will kill you anyways. Your biology sucks. It’s spawn and die. There is no safe sex for salmon. On the positive side, they look great on my barbecue grill. Of course, I don’t mention that part to them as they’ve already got a lot on their heads by this point.

SITS: Hmmmm, those “facts” sound surprisingly similar to attitudes some human parents have about teaching their offspring about sexuality. Fortunately, there are ways for humans to have safer sex.  After all, the population is still increasing at an alarming rate. Though there are fatal illnesses that can be contracted through unprotected sexual contact, such as HIV, there are also fairly effective ways to avoid the transmission of these diseases. Although abstinence is the only 100 percent effective way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, condom use is crucial in sexually active humans. I suppose that would be lost on the salmon population. Perhaps I should try working with another species. How about weasels in the Hylebos? I’ve heard there have been requests for relationship counseling among the females.

TL: Dr. Phil could do a special on the Hylebos’ short-tailed weasels! Weasel relationships are difficult and divorce is rampant. Weasel relationships last about one year; just long enough to rear some offspring and build a nest to fight over in court. Part of the problem is that the females mature early, becoming sexually mature at 3 to 4 months, while the boys aren’t through puberty until they are 1 year old. Like many humans, they’re physically capable of creating children long before they’re emotionally or psychologically ready to become parents, let alone sustain a relationship. And then there’s the fact that the guys, well, they’re just weasels!

SITS: Indeed, with humans, the average age of puberty, especially in girls, has been dropping. One recent report I read indicated that it is now “typical” for girls to begin breast development at age 8. There are many theories on why this is happening, and little we can do to reverse the trend.  However, we can encourage lifespan sexuality education, which treats sexuality as a lifelong conversation, rather than one or two “talks” once puberty hits. With puberty happening at younger and younger ages in humans, many parents think it’s too early to expose their children to the facts of life. I believe that starting at young ages with correct body part names, accurate information about where babies come from, and modeling and instilling strong relationship values goes a long way in keeping the lines of communication open between parents and children. If we all discussed this in a matter-of-fact way, in addition to providing information about safer sex practices as our children mature, I’m sure we’d see a drop in disease and teen pregnancy rates — in humans. Those weasels, though…it will be a challenge to go against a rampant cultural (and biological) norm. Some theories suggest that locking up the females and giving them deep psychological training about mistrusting males is the best way to go. Your thoughts?

TL: Well, as a father of three daughters, the idea of locking up young males does have its appeal. It does go against my values on civil liberties, though. And for the non-human denizens of the Hylebos, it would wreak havoc with the ecosystem. I do like your thoughts on consistent, frank talk about sexuality. Perhaps, in the Hylebos, we need to look to the species that are modeling positive behavior. The Bald Eagle is a species that is thought to mate for life, though they are practical. If a pair repeatedly fails at reproducing, they will split up and find new mates. Bald Eagles are devoted parents who share egg incubation, foraging and nurturing duties (though it is commonly believed that the Bald Eagle pop is responsible for talks about cleaning up the nest, finishing homework and giving the teen eagle flying lessons). All in all, the Bald Eagles can be considered great role models for other species.

SITS: You raise some good points; however, I know from experience that what looks like a wonderful lifestyle for some is not always the best for all. For instance, human families come in all shapes, sizes, and configurations. Many non-traditional families are healthy and share wonderful values like love, acceptance, tolerance and diversity. Simply having a monogamous set of parents doesn’t ensure a happy, healthy environment for kids. And in fact, families with both the original parents are becoming rarer and rarer among humans.

TL: This is true. Reproductive strategies and values that work for one species might not work for another. Take the park’s red-winged blackbirds. These cheeky little chirpers are the Hylebos’ proponents of free love and open relationships. Before we get judgmental and scorn them for not being more like the virtuous bald eagle, we need to recognize that their polygnous lifestyle is all about what’s best for the kids. It turns out that the blackbirds have many more predators than the Bald Eagles. By living in a colony with many parents and many offspring, the red-winged blackbirds ensure that baby birds will continue to be nurtured if they lose a parent to say, a Bald Eagle.

SITS: Now that we’ve talked, I’m thinking that modeling tolerance and diversity is crucial in our situations. What is right and good for one couple/species/family just wouldn’t work for another — but that doesn’t make them wrong. And making sure there’s a healthy, loving environment for the children is paramount. So, back to the salmon…

TL: Sorry, Amy. They’re still screwed. But I am firing up my barbecue!