by Roxanna Bennett
Remember when March of the Penguins came out and Evangelical Christians got all excited citing the penguins’ behavior as evidence that family values and perseverance were part of nature’s intelligent design?
Bet they’re regretting that bandwagon right about now. Pedro and Buddy, two African penguins at the Metro Toronto Zoo, are being separated by zookeepers for breeding purposes despite the intense social bond the two males have formed. As intense as if they bonded to breed. Like say, if they were married like a man penguin and a lady penguin. One zookeeper is quoted as saying: “They do courtship and mating behaviours that females and males would do.” Part of a larger group of 12 penguins, Buddy and Pedro socialize with the rest of the flock but at night pair off together, groom each other and will as a pair defend their territory.
Buddy and Pedro are originally from a zoo in Toledo, Ohio, and were bonded before the reached the Metro Zoo. Twenty-one year old Buddy had a female partner for ten years with whom we produced offspring but she is now deceased. Ten year old Pedro has never produced offspring and the zoo feels it’s their job to ensure that the penguins are matched with females and bred.
Buddy and Pedro are not the first same-sex animal pair, nor even the first same-sex penguin couple. In 2004 a pair of same-sex chinstrap penguins named Roy and Silo at New York City’s Central Park zoo incubated, hatched and raised a chick together, a female named Tango. Tango’s birth was the subject of a popular and controversial children’s book called And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson.
A pair of male penguins at a zoo in Germany also successfully hatched a chick. It is almost rarer to find an animal species wherein there is not same-sex pairing than it is to find a completely heterosexual animal species. Same-sex pairings have been observed in elephants, giraffes, dolphins, apes, lions, sheep, swans, hyenas and vultures. The list of same-sex pairings in insects and marine species is too long to list.
But is it homophobia that has prompted the zoo to separate Buddy and Pedro? The Metro Zoo’s mandate is to conserve all animal species, especially those on the verge of extinction. Penguins are especially difficult to breed because researchers cannot extract sperm and penguin eggs are very labour intensive to hatch. The global African penguin population is 224, 000 and so it is thought vital that Buddy and Pedro do their part to further the species. The African Penguin’s numbers are declining from the usual suspects: pollution, oil spills, and commercial fisheries starving them out by capturing the penguins’ food supply.
Bird curator at the Metro Zoo Tom Mason has been quoted as saying: “If they weren’t genetically important, then we’d let them do their thing.”
The zoo intends to reunite the pair once they have successfully inseminated their new female partners.
Photo of African Penguins in Atlanta by TheCoffee via Wikimedia Commons.