The goat sex researcher

There's nothing romantic about Larry Katz's "lab." And yet...

Bob Grant
Bob Grant

Bob started with The Scientist as a staff writer in 2007. Before joining the team, he worked as a reporter at Audubon and earned a master’s degree in science journalism...

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Oct 1, 2006

The bucolic environment in which Larry Katz works would hardly be considered romantic. As we wander around the pens that house his herd of alpine goats at Rutgers University, flies swarm us, and our nostrils are filled with the pungent aromas of barnyard life. But if you're someone like Katz who studies goat mating, you'd best get used to the kinds of settings that bring out the animal in, well, animals. "You should smell this place during the breeding season," Katz says, when the pens reek with the odors of his libidinous test subjects, which engage in "an orgy of activity" around the end of autumn.

Katz, now the chair of the Department of Animal Sciences at Rutgers, has been stepping over piles of dung since his undergraduate studies in animal science at Cornell University. His interest in animal behavior was sparked when he was a teenager growing up in...

Can watching goats copulate help researchers understand androgen physiology in women?

Katz stayed at Cornell, where he earned his master's degree studying reproductive physiology and behavior in cattle. He then set out for the west coast to pursue a PhD in animal behavior at the University of California, Davis. It was there that Katz began looking into the sex lives of goats. Though his doctoral thesis research involved his old bovine friends, he dabbled in studying goats and sheep along the way.

When he arrived at Rutgers in 1989, goats became his main focus. Katz says that the size and number of goats he could maintain and study given the facilities available at Rutgers made his decision easy.

The goats were good to Katz, and in just three years he became chair of the department. Along the way, he's gained the kind of practical knowledge that goat farmers can really use. "We've shown, for example, that in intact females, as they come into estrus, if we treat them with a testosterone blocker, their vaginas dry out," Katz says. And he's shown that juvenile male goats become more adept at copulating with more sexual experience, and that male goats become aroused by watching two female goats mount each other, which they commonly do.

Katz and his Rutgers colleagues normally rely on research grants from the US Department of Agriculture or Rutgers to develop new husbandry techniques, improve veterinary practices, or increase production in agriculturally important animal species. He'd like to extend his work, however, by establishing a link between goat sexual behavior and human sexual behavior.

In particular, he hopes to use his experiments on proceptivity - the range of female behaviors that stimulate or reinitiate sexual interactions with males - to help round out the emerging picture of why postmenopausal women, in particular, sometimes experience decreased libidos. "Addressing enhancing the expression of proceptive behaviors is the way to deal with sexual dysfunction," Katz says. That means applying for National Science Foundation funding and, in the future, perhaps the National Institutes of Health.

The switch will probably make sense to many of the people to whom he's described goat sexual activities. "Everyone I describe the behavior of these animals to starts to laugh," Katz says, "because they see themselves."

Katz is quick, though, to temper this comparison with the type of disclaimer typical of animal behaviorists. "I'm not saying the goat is a little human," says Katz, "but there are similarities in their sexual behavior, per se, that resemble sexual behaviors in humans."

Crista Johnson, an obstetrician/gynecologist and clinical lecturer at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, says Katz may be on to something. "Whatever insights [Katz] could glean could help us in how we approach androgen physiology in postmenopausal women," she says. Katz's work could serve as an important building block for clinical research into female sexual dysfunction, which she says has been funded mostly by pharmaceutical companies in search of a "magic pill" (read: Viagra for her) for enhancing female sex drive.

But Johnson, an expert on female sexual health who is not involved in Katz's work, also shares Katz's caution not to overstate the reach of the goat model. "All animal models obviously come short because they're not humans," she says. "Our research questions will be very different, but both could add to the puzzle."

In the end, says Katz, his studies are inherently useful, since the goat is the most common agricultural species on Earth. "The great thing about studying the goat is that, at the end of the day, the goat matters anyway."

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