On a grey and blustery November afternoon, the lovebirds nestle together for warmth. Scrunched into a corner by a large boulder, they seem oblivious to the gawkers and shutterbugs that ring the path above. Even another couple mating furiously at their feet fails to draw much more than a quick, beady-eyed glance. Buddy and Pedro, the Toronto Zoo’s suddenly famous gay penguins, are lost in the moment. Or maybe they are simply digesting lunch. A gut full of smelts and enduring passion are difficult to differentiate when it comes to small, flightless waterfowl.
Truth be told, there is little to set the pair apart from the 10 other African penguins that make up the park’s newest exhibit. At 21, Buddy is more portly and has a notched beak—the sign of a distinguished older male. Pedro, 10, while not exactly a hardbody, could be described as lithe, and tends to be more energetic. Both are around standard Spheniscus demersus height, just a tad over two feet. But even zoo officials rely on their colour-coded flipper bands to pick them out—pale orange for Pedro, flamboyant yellow for Buddy.
In the beginning, few took notice of their May-December romance. When they arrived in Toronto from an all-male colony at the Toledo Zoo last November, they were placed in quarantine, then gradually introduced to the other penguins, imported from two different U.S. facilities. The group then spent the winter indoors, in a building next to the exhibit, getting to know each other and their keepers. In May, when the display opened, they moved outside to the large pool—a former seal pen with vantage areas up top and windows down below for the underwater view. Zoo workers were pleased: the penguins spent about 70 per cent of their time this summer swimming, a sign of contentment for the species. But Buddy and Pedro proved to be a little aloof—especially to the girls. While the others frolicked, they would repair to a shady nook underneath a large rock for alone time. Soon it was apparent that they had bonded.
Maybe the cosmopolitan, big zoo atmosphere in Toronto fostered more openness—although, like prison or submarines, same-sex alliances were a fact of life in Toledo’s all-guy penguin pen. Still, the two had never really clicked back in Ohio. Buddy, who arrived as a chick from the Baltimore Zoo in 1990, was a long-established force. Pedro, a 2004 addition from a colony at the Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester, N.Y., proved equally headstrong. “They were both more dominant, first-at-the-fish-bowl kind of birds,” says Robert Webster, Toledo’s curator of birds. They ran with different crowds, even clashing occasionally. “Nothing overt; it wasn’t a West Side Story situation,” says Webster. “They just had other friends.”
The budding summer bromance didn’t faze the keepers in Toronto. And few, if any, visitors were aware that the nuzzling pair were males. (Penguins, after all, have no external genitalia, and are often sexed by DNA tests when young.) The media, as is their way, didn’t even cover the good news opening of the exhibit. It wasn’t until months later, when the chairman of the zoo’s board mentioned the gay penguins in passing to someone at the Toronto Star, that anyone seemed to care.
A short video posted to the paper’s website in early November morphed into a viral sensation, racking up more than 270,000 hits. But it was a follow-up story a couple of days later, exposing the zoo’s plans to break up Buddy and Pedro and pair them with two females, Farai, 3, and Thandiwey, 4, that really captured public attention. Suddenly the zoo was fielding calls from the big American TV networks and other media outlets as far away as Germany and Hong Kong. Jimmy Kimmel compared the situation to “Brokeback Iceberg” in his monologue. Someone posted an Internet petition demanding that the zoo “not ruin the lives” of the penguins. Invective-laden emails—more than 600 at last count—started landing in the zoo’s inboxes. And the phone hasn’t stopped ringing.
Standing at the penguin exhibit, watching the pair nuzzle, Tom Mason, Toronto’s curator of birds and invertebrates, shakes his head in wonder at the wave of anger. “At this point, I’m just riding the dumbfounded crest.”
For all the fuss, Buddy and Pedro are hardly the first tuxedoed birds to out themselves. Wendell and Cass, a pair of Spheniscus demersus from the New York Aquarium in Coney Island, gained notoriety in 2002 for their open and extremely amorous relationship. So too did Roy and Silo, male chinstrap penguins from the Central Park Zoo—“Love That Dare Not Squeak Its Name” was the headline on the 2004 New York Times story—eventually fostering an egg together. And Mason notes that the Toronto Zoo’s original African penguin exhibit, some 20 years ago, featured a male-bonded pair who either escaped public notice or were afforded more privacy by the press. (The zoo eventually shut down the indoor display when the birds started to succumb to lung infections. The surviving penguins—including the same-sex pair—were shipped to the West Edmonton Mall.)
Homosexual behaviour in animals is a widespread, natural phenomenon, documented in more than 450 different species, from bugs to dolphins. But the hang-ups some people have with such human activity tend to make biologists leery of discussing it in stark terms. The Toronto Zoo is careful to point out that no one has seen Buddy and Pedro actually doing it. (Although in penguins the act, consummated through their single urogenital opening, lasts just seconds.) And more to the point, even if they were, it shouldn’t be mistaken for a deep, mystical connection. “They’re not making love to their partners,” says Steve Sarro, director of animal husbandry and collections at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. “They’re having sex to produce offspring. That’s their job.”
Sarro is the man in charge of the African penguin Species Survival Plan. With the wild population increasingly endangered—today there are fewer than 50,000 in the coastal waters off southern Africa, down from a couple of million a century ago—every captive bird must do its part. As with purebred horses or dogs, the program maintains a “stud book” detailing the lineage of each of the 800 penguins housed in 47 zoos across North America. Everyone co-operates to keep the gene pool as deep as possible, and sometimes that means breaking up pairings of both the opposite- and same-sex variety. In nature, penguin divorce tends to be more sudden, courtesy of a hungry seal or shark. But either way, the creatures are hard-wired to adapt. “These are not people with emotions,” says Sarro. “It works out just fine. When they separate, they want to be with other birds.”
So sometime in the coming weeks, when Toronto’s penguins are taken indoors for the winter and mating season, Buddy and Pedro will be physically separated and placed in different rooms with their new female partners. Once they mate, build nests and hopefully produce chicks, the new bond will have supplanted the old one. Come next spring, Buddy and Pedro will be back in the same display, free to interact but no longer attached.
A tragic end to a great love story? Some will surely see it that way. But both penguins have suffered heartbreak before and moved on. Before Toledo moved to an all-male exhibit in 2001, Buddy had a female partner for almost a decade, producing two offspring before she died of natural causes. And Pedro arrived in Ohio from the Seneca Park Zoo already bonded to another male, a relationship that continued until he was shipped to Toronto and his boyfriend to Arkansas. What was the other penguin called? Webster, the Toledo curator, hesitates on the other end of the line. “His name is Easy,” he says finally.
For all the furor, the Toronto Zoo hasn’t noticed any uptick in attendance or larger than usual crowds gaping at the birds. Gay penguins don’t exactly drive out the parents and kiddies. Still, Mason, freezing in the November breeze, marvels at the outpouring of attention, unmatched in his 31 years as a keeper and curator. “I wish the anger and energy going into talking about these two could go into supporting the species,” he says. Threatened by oil spills, human overfishing of their food supply and global warming, African penguins are in need of help, not liberation.