When my first grandchild was but a toddler, we wore out a copy of And Tango Makes Three, the true story of Silo and Roy, two male Chinstrap penguins at New York City’s Central Park Zoo. They cuddle together, and share a cozy nest, and when all the other penguin couples begin to produce eggs, Silo and Roy want to be parents too. Unaware of the laws of procreation, they bring an egg shaped rock back to their nest, where they try faithfully to hatch it. A kindly zookeeper notices the plight of Silo and Roy and decides they deserve a chance to be daddies, so he entrusts them with a real egg. The book recalls the same-sex penguin couple’s devotion tending, first to their precious egg, and later, to their little hatchling daughter, Tango. As I remember it, the last words in the book are “Read it again Nana!”
Everybody outside the hard-core homophobes of this world, seems to love a “gay” penguin story. If human gay couples were half as popular, the House of Representatives would be picketing the Supreme Court to overturn DOMA. Why, even in China, a country not known for its embrace of gay rights, a pair of same-sex penguins at Harbin Polar Land was given a “wedding.” Then, when a female in the park had trouble keeping up with her twin hatchlings, keepers gave the pair one of her chicks to make them a family.
Gay penguins have always been a huge draw. In the early 1990s, the SanFrancisco Zoo was fortunate to have a pair of“gay” Magellanic penguins from South America. Harry and Pepper drew adoring crowds for six years. The pair would help incubate the eggs of other penguins, and eventually hatched and raised their own chick, just like Silo and Roy. Their keepers said they were the best parents on the island, raising the biggest chick, who, by the way, showed no sign of maladjustment due to having two dads.
The affection for “gay” penguin couples revealed itself again last fall in a public outcry, when the Toronto Zoo announced they were splitting up their own same-sex penguin couple, Buddy and Pedro. Unlike the other penguins who were allowed to raise chicks, Buddy and Pedro are African Penguins, considered endangered, and the two had been born and bred in captivity to have the “right stuff,” genetically speaking, to strengthen their species. But in response to the public protest, the Zoo promised Pedro and Buddy would be reunited in the spring.
For the good of the species, Buddy and Pedro were each forced into what, in human terms, would be an arranged marriage. Buddy had been a successful breeder in the past, producing several chicks before his partner of ten years died and Pedro came into his life. He was introduced to a female named Farai. The two produced two chicks, which sadly didn’t survive. Pedro is said to have courted his handpicked bride, the standoffish Thandiwe, but the two did not produce an egg. Finally the breeding season was over, and the gentlemen were reintroduced into the zoo’s penguin exhibit.
Are you cheering for the lovebirds to find each other once again? Of course you are. That’s because people love “gay” penguins. “Read it again Nana!” But in reality, there’s no such thing as a gay penguin, at least not in the same committed way humans are gay.
Though Buddy and Pedro are back in the same Toronto Zoo penguin exhibit, they have given up their man love and have bonded with the females chosen for them. But before you feel too angry at the zoo for splitting them up in the first place, you should know Silo left Roy for a cute female newcomer and Pepper was lured away from Harry by a conniving widow named Linda before her former partner’s body was even cold, or warm, however that works for penguins
The truth is penguins aren’t gay. It is the nature of the species to form “bonded pairs” and occasionally two males or even less frequently, two females will form such a pair. We anthropomorphize the cute little guys – attribute human characteristics to them – but they aren’t people, and how they behave really has nothing to do with human beings. Two bonded penguins don’t prove homosexuality is innate in all species, nor does a penguin’s change of partner mean reparative therapy works. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something that we humans can learn from the way the penguin community reacted to the affection Buddy and Pedro had for one another.
The penguin community wasn’t scandalized because Buddy and Roy wanted to nest together. As long as they didn’t steal their eggs, the other penguins didn’t look down upon Harry and Pepper. No penguins protested to the zookeepers with a hunger strike. No fellow-penguins bullied them, or ostracized them. Two penguins were experiencing penguin attraction, and not a feather was ruffled, imagine that. It is only humans who seem to feel the need to label them as “gay” penguins and treat them as an oddity. To other penguins, they are just two birds in love, and isn’t that the way things should be?