(ENDANGERED SPECIES/WILDLIFE CONSERVATION) CANADA — The news that the Toronto Zoo is splitting up Buddy and Pedro, a homosexual African penguin couple, in order to pair them up with females ignited outrage in both animal lovers and the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities. But is this decision to split the penguins up really as anti-gay as it appears, or is there more to this story? Read on to find out why Pedro and Buddy have to mate with females, and what will happen to them after the breeding season is over. — Global Animal
National Post, Tristin Hopper
TORONTO — Splitting up a pair of potentially homosexual African penguins and pairing them with females might sound anti-gay, but keepers at the Toronto Zoo insist they are simply trying to preserve the species.
Pedro, 10, and Buddy, 20, were brought to the Toronto Zoo this year from Pittsburgh’s National Aviary to “pair-bond” with a couple of eligible females. Instead, the pair bonded with each other. Zookeepers now report seeing the pair snuggling, calling to each other and displaying courtship behaviour.
This week, the Toronto Zoo says it will be forced isolate the pair.
“The two girls have been following them; we just have to get the boys interested in looking at them,” said Tom Mason, curator of birds and invertebrates at the Toronto Zoo.
With Pedro and Buddy’s species on the cusp of extinction, Mr. Mason insists that the Toronto Zoo cannot afford to let a season go by without passing on the pair’s genes. “If [Pedro and Buddy] weren’t genetically important, then we’d let them do their thing,” Mr. Mason said.
In the 1990s, an estimated 225,000 African penguins lived in the wild. Nowadays the number is closer to 60,000 — and dropping fast. The cause, biologists suspect, is changing ocean currents that are driving food sources further and further away from penguin breeding grounds on the African coast. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has estimated that wild stocks of African penguins could be completely wiped out before the end of the century.
“We have to keep an eye on the population all the time, because if we let things slide we could lose the population forever,” Mr. Mason said.
As a result, the sexual partners of almost all captive African penguins are carefully mapped out by researchers at Chicago’s Population Management Center. There, penguins are paired, split up and even moved to different zoos purely on the basis of maximizing genetic diversity.
At the New England Aquarium, for instance, lovers are routinely split up and paired with other partners not because of orientation, but because they are too closely related, says Tony LaCasse, spokesperson for the New England Aquarium. “We joke that our staff are penguin yentas,” says Mr. LaCasse.
The story of Toronto’s star-crossed penguins made headlines through North America and the UK on Monday, prompting an outpouring of sympathy for the couple. Pedro and Buddy “may only have days left before they are wrenched from each other’s embrace,” reported the Daily Mail. One blogger even called the treatment of Pedro and Buddy “reparative therapy,” a reference to efforts in the United States and Canada to “cure” a person of homosexuality through drugs or electroshock therapy.
As zoo animals go, penguins are particularly difficult to breed. If Pedro and Buddy were wood bison, zookeepers could simply extract their sperm and use it to artificially inseminate an eligible female. But among penguins, the labour-intensive process of incubating and hatching an egg is next to impossible for one parent.
In 2004, Roy and Silo, a pair of male chinstrap penguins at New York’s Central Park Zoo became famous for incubating and rearing an egg given to them by zookeepers.
The pair’s story was later written up into the bestselling children’s book, “And Tango Makes Three.”
Roy and Silo eventually split when Silo became interested in a female penguin. In 2009, gay San Francisco Zoo penguins Harry and Pepper would similarly break up after Harry took up with a female penguin.
A 2010 study of penguin homosexuality by France’s Centre for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology concluded that penguin homosexuality is widespread, but rarely last longer than a few years.
Pedro and Buddy’s separation will only last as long as they can inseminate their respective female partners. While incubating eggs, the two may well be back “side by side.” Once breeding season is up, Pedro and Buddy will “probably” ditch their female partners and reunite, said Bill Rapley, executive director for conservation, education and wildlife at the Toronto Zoo.