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Electro-ejaculation: the business of collecting elephant sperm

Elephants in captivity are becoming too inbred. That’s where the sperm bank of wild elephant semen comes in.
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Elephants in captivity are becoming too inbred. Researchers hope insemination with frozen wild elephant sperm solves the problem. Here, a keeper cares for the sensitive skin of one-year old baby elephant Dinkar at the zoo in Hanover, central Germany, on January 31, 2012. (JOCHEN LUEBKE/AFP/Getty Images)

Just when you thought masturbating over a JC Penney underwear catalog in an IVF clinic was an unfortunate way to breed, think about what poor elephants must go through these days.

It’s called electro-ejaculation.

It works the way it sounds.

A probe is inserted about three or four centimeters into the lower intestine, near the gonadal nerve center.

This is then stimulated with a 5 to 15 volt charge that causes a contraction of the entire reproductive tract, which leads to the sperm being forced out.

According to Thomas Hildebrandt of Berlin’s Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, this is an established medical method for paraplegic men that's been used for 25 or 30 years.

He now performs the procedure on wild elephants.

Why?

Because elephants in captivity are getting too inbred, which is why every couple of years Dr. Hildebrandt takes off for South Africa searching for potentially fertile wild elephant bulls, The Local reports.

So far, it sounds like a fairly fun job.

But here is where things get a bit messy.

Once a fertile elephant is identified, Hildebrandt shoots it with a dart.

The powerful anesthetic in the dart triggers a muscle contraction that causes the elephant’s 1.5 meter (five foot) long penis to retract into its cavity and, apparently, it takes some teasing out.

Hildebrandt explains to The Local this way:

The problem is, in order to extract the sperm hygienically, we have to get the tip out and clean it.  

How they get the tip out, the report doesn't say and, frankly, we probably don‘t want to know.

Once they get it out and extract the semen, they immediately freeze it, and later thaw it and test for various diseases.

So far, no elephant cow has yet been successfully inseminated with sperm that has previously been frozen.

But they are working on it.

It’s not exactly a cheap way to breed.

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Welcome to Thailand: The penis shrine

Tucked behind the Swissotel Hotel in Bangkok is a fertility shrine with hundreds of phallus carvings.

It’s been a while since I got anywhere near a seven-foot penis.

The last time that happened I was in Bhutan, where I reported on the Buddhism-inspired phallic imagery locals there paint on their houses to ward off evil spirits.

You'll find similar phallic warship rituals in Japan, too, as reported by GlobalPost in a story and photo essay on penis and vagina festivals.

Since it’s almost springtime, it was about time I made another pilgrimage to pay my respects to the penis.

After all, if it weren’t for a global fascination with the phallus, I would have to find another way to make a living.

So today I went to the “penis shrine,” as the Lingam Fertility Shrine in Bangkok is colloquially called.

It's a small wooden structure tucked behind a giant glass building of the Swissotel Hotel. I found myself in this secluded spot, in the shadow of banyan trees, surrounded by some three hundred wooden phalluses ranging from lifesize to seven feet long.

The Lingam Fertility Shrine, if the name isn't obvious, is the place locals come to pray so that they can conceive children.

The setting is surreal. If I was a marketing director for Swissotel, I would capitalize on the hotel’s location and design a special “penis shrine view room.” You could set up couples with champagne and charge them as much as an average IVF cycle.

The shrine was originally dedicated to Chao Mae Tuptim, a female animist spirit who — locals believe — has been residing in the banyan tree next to the shrine for centuries. One day, the story goes, a woman came to the shrine asking for help from Chao Mae Tuptim because she couldn’t get pregnant. Nine months after visiting the temple, she gave birth to a healthy child. She was so grateful, she came back and left a giant wooden carving of penis as a way to thank the universe.

Over the years, others have followed in her footsteps. If you visit today, you will see hundreds of phallus-shaped objects, made mostly from wood and stone.

Some have bows tied around them for protection, others are dyed bright red, blue or green. All of them, however, are here with the same premise: You offer up a penis, and you, too, may undergo the miracle of conception.

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