Saturday, November 18, 2006

Yes, Virginia, there are gay penguins...

A children's book, And Tango Makes Three, was recently published about the gay Chinstrap penguin couple, Silo and Roy, and their baby, Tango, at the Central Park Zoo in New York City.

Silo and Roy, after years of trying to hatch rocks, adopted a fertilized egg which was abandoned by its biological parents in 2001. They took care of the egg until it hatched, and raised the chick as their own. I think it's very cute. The book is causing controversy in elementary schools though, of course, something which was written about by the associated press here. Sadly, Silo and Roy broke up in 2005 after six years together... aw... Silo has taken up with a female penguin, named Scrappy, imported from Sea World San Diego, and Roy remains single.

Silo and Roy were only one of several homosexual penguin pairs in captivity. In 1997, the Central Park Zoo also had 3 other pairs of gay penguins. They tried to force them apart, but the experiment failed, resulting in only one of the 8 penguins involved creating a "pair-bond" with a female penguin instead of going back to pair-bonding with males. It was after this occurrence that Silo and Roy pair-bonded and built their nest.

There's also the somewhat unique case of Wendell and Cass, both African black-footed penguins, at the New York Aquarium at Coney Island. Unique because they have been together for twelve years now, since they were 3 or 4 years old, possibly one of the longest monogamous relationships observed between penguins in captivity. They have never broken up and have never shown interest in any other penguins. They also have never seemed to show any interest in raising a chick either because they've not tried to hatch rocks as Silo and Roy did, and they don't seem to be upset by the fact that all their frolicking never produces any eggs. They do however have a nest together, which is coveted by all the other penguins in their exhibit, high up on the fake rock enclosure - a penthouse really - with a view of the water and easy access to their food. (I find that extremely funny...)

There are also about 20 homosexual penguin pairs known to be in various Japanese zoos. And there are several more in Europe of which I'm aware. There's a lesbian pair, which mated with male penguins only to produce fertilized eggs and then raised their offspring together. And there are several other gay pairs of Humboldt penguins at the Bremerhaven Zoo in Germany, which were very upset after the zoo isolated each male with only a female companion to try to force them to mate and produce offspring. Like in New York, the experiment didn't work there either, but the zookeepers are determined to keep trying because the Humbolt penguins are extremely rare and endangered and it is important to try to produce as many offspring from as many individual penguins as possible to save the species. Zookeepers insist that their efforts are not to discourage the natural homosexual behavior in their penguins, but rather they are just doing what they have determine must be done in order to save the Humbolt penguins from extinction. I can't say that I agree or disagree with them on that, but I don't think that they will have much success with those particular penguins.

Like humans, penguins like to find a mate and in most cases, are monogamous while they are together. Sometimes, they mate for life, and sometimes, they pair-bond just long enough to raise offspring. There are observed cases of homosexual mating pairs in wild penguins and their adoption of abandoned eggs is not unusual. Male/female penguin pairs can only care for one egg at a time, so in cases where two eggs are produced, they abandon one of them in order to give the remaining egg a better chance to reach adulthood. Gay penguin pairs sometimes claim and care for these abandoned eggs. Confirming cases of wild lesbian penguins repeating the behavior observed in the zoo is more difficult, but probably also occurs.

I think it very interesting that these aspects of natural penguin behavior is completely left out of movies like "Happy Feet" and "March of the Penguins". Though, of course, I get the movie-makers' reasons for not being more inclusive. They want as many parents as possible to take their kids to see these movies so that they can maximize their profits. Since Conservative parents are funny that way... well... they leave out stuff like that which might upset them. Not right, but it's what they do... Lucky for the rest of us fair-minded people, there are books like And Tango Makes Three.

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