Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Love blossoms for zoo male penguin pair


Pepper, left, and Harry are a strongly bonded pair of male penguins at the San Francisco Zoo. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
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Harry and Pepper could be the poster boys for the phrase "opposites attract." Harry is a social butterfly and loves attention. Pepper, on the other hand, prefers to be left alone.

The two do share a love of swimming and eating fish, mostly herring and capelin. For two years the 5-year-old Magellanic penguins have been lovebirds, attached at the wing, at the San Francisco Zoo.

"They are a strongly bonded pair of birds," said zookeeper Anthony Brown. "They are monogamous. There hasn't been any exploring."

As the zoo and its animals get ready to celebrate Valentine's Day – for the penguins it is the start of breeding season – the male penguin pair is the sole same-gender couple struck by Cupid's arrow among the zoo's colony of 53 birds.

"They've been boyfriends for a long time," said their former keeper, Jane Tollini, who left the zoo after 24 years – 19 with the penguins – in 2005.

Early on, Tollini said, the two penguins' personalities – and dislike of their own kind – were evident. So was the fact they were "different" from their penguin peers.

"Pepper came from a very strange family. He didn't fit in with all the other penguins," she said. "Harry is kind of social. He liked people more than the other penguins."

Harry and Pepper both weigh eight and half pounds and stand about a foot and half tall. During feeding times the couple is the first to dine. Pepper has a preference for dining "al aqua" so his keepers have affixed a black leather armband to his wing so they can better monitor his feeding habits.

"He eats in the water so quickly it is hard to read his number," said Brown.

Pepper, tagged number 207, also has a "huge beak compared to his body size," said Brown. As for Harry, he prefers to eat on land and is recognizable by the large white spot at the base of his tail.

Harry, tagged number 201, loves to visit with the zoo's human guests. But he had trouble finding a home, or burrow, with the other penguins. He settled on a planter box close to the spot where the keepers feed the birds. His home was away from the colony and a short waddle away from the dinner table.

"It was the best of both worlds," said Tollini.

As for Pepper, he soon took notice of Harry's secluded spot and decided to move in.

"Pepper said, 'This is great. No one will bother me,'" she said.

They've been smitten with each other ever since. The pair did move into the row of five burrows on the north side of the Penguin Island exhibit. The row had been fully owned by Fig, the alpha male of the group – Brown said the females consider him "a stud muffin" due to his ivory-yellow colored beak – but he relented the last one on the right side to the male pair.

In late January the two had already begun to build a nest in expectation of the breeding season that starts next week. Brown, while pointing out their burrow, rated it "very high" quality compared to Fig's female partner, who had pulled in plastic to her burrow.

Last year the male couple received a decoy egg to incubate and proved to be good adoptive parents.

"It was a precautionary measure. Penguins want to lay eggs so bad they will steal another burrow's egg. We were worried they would get hurt trying to steal an egg," said Brown. "They took good care of the egg. They would take turns watching the egg while the other goes out to eat, swim."

Harry and Pepper are so strongly bonded that they are being loaned to the Sacramento Zoo for its new penguin exhibit. Along with two other committed pairs, the boy couple will head north to the state's capital at the end of the month and return in mid-2008. When they do, Brown expects they will be ready to incubate a fertile egg and raise their own chick in 2009.

But Tollini isn't pleased with the decision to move the six birds and fears what will happen to them, especially when they return to San Francisco.

"I don't know what Anthony will do to save their burrow or will they fight like hell to get it back?" worried Tollini. "And it is hot in Sacramento. I wouldn't want to go to Sacramento."

Harry and Pepper were chosen, said Brown, because they are so close knit. They preen each other and on cold nights snuggle up close to share their body heat. When one is sick, both make the trip to the zoo's hospital. Otherwise, "they go crazy," said Brown.

Like humans, penguins don't like being alone.

"Penguins don't want to be a single penguin. Everyone wants to be a pair," said Brown.

The storybook version of two male penguins raising a chick, titled And Tango Makes Three, has caused a stir when stocked by school districts around the country, most recently in Charlotte, North Carolina. Parents and some school administrators have complained the book promotes homosexuality and want it banned from school libraries.

But zoo professionals voice no such qualms about raising same-sex pairs and allowing them to incubate eggs and raise chicks, said Pam Schaller an aquatic biologist at the California Academy of Science's Steinhart Aquarium. Especially, if the parents of the fertile eggs have genetic make-ups important to the captive breeding stock, she said.

"It is a benefit to give same-sex pairs an egg to raise. Most young, first-time parents have difficulty in successfully raising a chick or incubating eggs," said Schaller. "If a young couple has two eggs, you can keep them with one of their own and give the surrogate couple the other egg. It allows the first-time couple the opportunity to learn with just the one chick."

A same-sex pair with good parenting skills, thus, is not frowned upon.

"Even though it is a single-sex bonded pair, they could end up being extremely valuable in terms of incubating eggs and rearing other penguin pairs' chicks," said Schaller.

The academy has yet to have a same-sex pair within its colony of African penguins. The colony is kept small and equally balanced between male and female birds. When the new academy building opens in Golden Gate Park sometime in 2009 the colony will expand from its current colony of four bonded pairs to 18 birds. But Schaller doesn't expect to see a homosexual pairing because she intends to keep an equal number of male and female penguins.

Not the first

At the zoo, Harry and Pepper aren't the first same-sex Magellanic penguin pair. Tollini recalled there was another male pair – she has since forgotten their names – which also took great care of the nest in their burrow.

"I found a peacock feather in their burrow. It was very well appointed," she said.

There have been same-sex flamingo couples, gay lemur pairs, same-sex monkey couples, and canoodling between the zoo's former pairs of female Asian and African elephants.

"They did all sorts of things to each other with their trunks," said Tollini.

There was a lesbian penguin pair as well, named Betty and Ditz, whose burrow was "very messy," said Tollini. When Betty passed away Ditz moved in with Captain, a male bird. Yet the coupling was far from romantic.

"She is very, very old. She needed somebody to protect her so she picked a handsome, big guy," said Tollini. "There was no passion between them, believe me."

Tollini said she never bought into the argument that same-sex pairings are unnatural.

"I knew this happened with animals," she said. "The big argument was this doesn't happen in nature. I said, 'Bullshit. It certainly did.'"

The same-sex animal couplings at the zoo break down stereotypes, said Tollini, like gay men can't commit or dispel the notion that animals, including humans, have a natural tendency to pair up with the opposite sex in order to create offspring.

"Some of them maintained lifelong commitments to each other. That was the part that surprised me," she added. "Even when they had the ability to be straight and do what they are meant to do on this earth and procreate, they didn't. The fact is they didn't find procreation necessary."

During her first year working at the zoo Tollini fell in love with a female pair of Canada geese. The couple, which she named after lesbian pioneers Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, took up residence at the zoo.

"They were wonderful. Alice never shut up. Gertrude would hide in the bushes as if she were saying, 'Please, give me some quiet,'" said Tollini, who choked up thinking about the birds. "They were like a real married couple."

A male Canada goose, dubbed Henry Miller, lived in nearby Lake Merced and tried to court the female pair. Yet they never laid fertile eggs, said Tollini.

"They are one of my favorite animals. They were filled with personality and the freedom to choose anything," said Tollini. "They could have joined a group of migratory geese or split up. But they didn't. They loved each other.

"That is another myth, that animals are not capable of love," added Tollini.

The academy's Schaller said it is unknown if such same-gender pairs among penguins occur in the wild. For one thing, "You can't tell differences in the sexes in the wild," she said. "In captivity we have a situation where we do know the sex."

In recent years, as more media attention has been paid to homosexuality in the wild animal kingdom, Schaller said she has fielded more questions about gay penguin pairs.

"I get asked once a week or twice a week if that occurs," she said.

Nor is it clear if all such pairings remain, she said, when the balance of the sexes is restored in a captive penguin colony. When there are more male penguins than female, she said it is not uncommon to have several male-male bonded pairs.

When facilities have added females to the colony, Schaller said, "The males will break their bond and go to the females. There still tends to be a heterosexual preference in the group, but that is not always the case."

More male penguin pairs could turn up at the zoo. Its colony has eight extra male penguins at the moment. If the males do pair up, the exhibit is unlikely to become a Penguin version of Fire Island.

Male penguins, noted Tollini, don't have penises. Instead the male penguin must lie on top of the female and do what is called a cloaca kiss.

Tollini said, "It looks kind of like an asshole. They have a multi-purpose hole they use to poo, pee, have sex, and lay eggs."

Harry and Pepper are most likely asexual. According to Brown, he has never seen them copulate.

Full disclosure: Matthew S. Bajko is a "zoo parent."

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