Before sitting down to research this article, I knew nothing of tapir penises.
I’ve seen footage of plenty of tapirs—the exotic South American relative to the pig, with a long, dangly snout.
Somehow previous nature videos I’ve seen have neglected the tapir’s penis, which quickly rises to the top of my lists both for “most interesting parts of a tapir” and “best penises ever”. (It is narrowly beaten out by the echidna.)
It turns out, you see, that those long, dangly tapir snouts have nothing on the penis of the male of the species, which is, Dr. Carin Bondar informs people in one of her entertaining Wild Sex YouTube clips, 60 percent the length of the tapir’s body.
They’re also prehensile. Not in the weird way that the echidna’s multi-headed penis is, which is disturbingly like an arm with a tiny hand at the end; the tapir probably can’t grab onto much with his dink, but he can direct it away from himself to spray urine where he wants, and—Dr. Bondar informs her viewers—can actually, in coupling, directly shovel his sperm into the uterus of the female.
It seems a singularly entertaining use of a PhD, to study such matters.
A native of British Columbia, Dr. Bondar specializes in teaching, writing and otherwise educating about animal sex and reproduction, and her website is full of entertaining goodies.
She has an impressive following; that video about penis size alone has over 13,000,000 views.
Other accomplishments include a TEDx Talk in Chilliwack and books like Wild Moms, Wild Sex, and The Nature of Sex: The Ins and Outs of Mating in the Animal Kingdom.
So how did she end up a specialist in animal sex, anyhow? Did she set out in that direction from the outset, or did she get sidetracked?
“That's exactly what happened,” Dr. Bondar tells the Straight. “I was at home with the immediate 'products' of my own sex life”—that is, her four children—“and the internet still gave me the ability to reach the world. I started blogging and posting all kinds of cool stuff about ecology, evolution and animal behavior. When sex was part of the equation in any way, the audience was always more attentive and interested: more convo, questions, comments. The thing is, sex is something that we are all interested in, in our own way, no matter what. So, it's a great vehicle to teach about a lot of things. And yes, sex is critically important to any animal. It doesn't mean much to survive if you haven't reproduced. My Wild Sex series online”—which Dr. Bondar wrote and hosted—“has had nearly 120 million views!”
Dr. Bondar will be hosting a presentation before this week’s screening of The Birds at the Vancity Theatre, done in association with Nerd Nite Vancouver. The first part of the program on the Wednesday (July 10) involves Dr. Bondar’s presentation, SciFact vs. SciFi: Animals According to Hollywood.
So how does someone who specializes in animal sex end up presenting on animal attack movies? The films mentioned in the listing for her talk, from Arachnaphobia to Snakes on a Plane, are all horror or action movies where humans square off against marauding animals.
Part of that, it turns out, is due to the entire team—also including the Planetarium’s Michael Unger, Quest U’s Kaylee Byers, and the VIFF’s Tom Charity—working out which scenes from which films to use for the presentation.
“I think that we all tried to keep an open mind about which movies to choose,” Bondar explains, “based on familiarity and also, in my case for sure, to make sure to get a diversity of animal interactions. Much of what I'll discuss on the films focuses on psychology, brain function, ecology, social behaviour and physiology, and definitely includes a few undertones of 'Why do people always have to fight off angry animals in Hollywood?' thrown in. Basically, what we don't know, we fear. Hollywood definitely makes use of this aspect of human psychology!”
It is actually kind of odd that—from Day of the Animals to insect fear classics like Bug and Phase IV—there are actually enough horror movies about marauding animals to make it a bona-fide sub genre. Do human beings get some weird satisfaction out of seeing themselves fighting off wild animals? (Why is that scene from Day of the Animals where Leslie Nielsen wrestles a grizzly so damned entertaining, anyhow?)
“We love to delight in our basic feelings and emotions, including fear, so that's one thing,” Dr. Bondar answers. “Fear of the unknown is important,” including unfamiliar and odd creatures like invertebrates, which “make a lot of appearances in Hollywood films as aliens and monsters. But we are also biologically and psychologically conditioned to be wary of animals that have jagged or sharp edges, like spiders, and animals that don't have a familiar pattern of front, back, top, bottom—or arms, legs, head, like snakes. Hollywood again plays on our biological tendencies here, and amps up the drama for sure.”
Dr. Bondar’s own favourite animal attack films include the Jaws movies, as befits her interest in marine biology.
She did not choose The Birds, as the evening’s feature, “but I love how this classic film took a familiar bird that many people interact with on a daily basis and made it a monster. For me, the film is 'delightfully horrific’, if that makes sense. It isn't meant to be correctly portraying the biology of either crows or gulls—neither of which are predators like this. These birds are both opportunistic feeders and predators on smaller animals and eggs. The film is using the art of the storyline and the beauty (and horror) of a commonly seen critter to tickle our senses of fear and curiosity.”
Being a scientist means that some of the liberties Hollywood takes with its subject matter can irritate.
Dr. Bondar loves it, she tells the Straight, when “animals are appropriately represented, science is appropriately represented, and women in science are portrayed, period. When films get it right, it makes me feel like Hollywood did its due diligence to education of the masses—something that I consider to be really important, and part of its responsibility.”
In particular, she’s “been really impressed by the themes of basic science and biology that have been represented in many kids' movies. I particularly loved Inside Out for its portrayal of brain and memory function, and Zootopia for raising the issue of predator/prey ecology in a changing world. I will be giving positive science based reviews to a few of our choices for the evening as well!”
Stranger even than the tapir penis, in interviewing Dr. Bondar, I discover that I knew her father.
Paul Bondar was the librarian at the high school I went to in the 1980s, and worked at a long-demolished movie theatre in Maple Ridge, the Stardust, where I saw my first theatrical film.
When he retired from the high school system, he went on to open the town’s next independent movie theatre.
Paul Bondar is no longer with us, but the theatre, technically in Pitt Meadows, survives to this day as one of the Hollywood Three chain, where local ska-punk Jonny Bones of the Bone Daddies and the Still Spirits hosts monthly midnight movies. (Their next screening, on July 26, is the zom-com Night of the Creeps).
Dr. Bondar’s father’s “love of cinema inspired many of my current projects that mix media and science,” she remarks. “I'm not into movies too much per se, but I spent many childhood evenings watching Busby Berkeley numbers and I love bringing some science to this flair. Please tell Jonny Bones that my dad would be so pleased that he does the monthly series—in fact, his spirit is likely in attendance!”
Dr. Bondar is currently also working on “a music video on Climate Change at the University of the Fraser Valley” and a children’s book series “based on cutting edge research in coral reef ecology and conservation, with beautiful images and quirky characters.”
She is only one of the scientists who will be hosting science-themed film evenings at the Vancity Theatre this summer. You can read more about the whole series in Michael Unger’s article on the VIFF website.