Donovan Vincent, Staff Reporter
Are Buddy and Pedro, two African penguins at the Toronto Zoo, gay?
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but their keepers have noticed the two are inseparable, and perhaps most telling, they’re showing signs of mating behaviours.
There are other cases of gay penguins — zoos in New York, Japan, Germany and Sea World Orlando have seen examples.
As part of an experiment a few years ago, Roy and Silo, two male chinstrap penguins at New York’s Central Park zoo, incubated an egg together and raised the chick, named Tango, after she hatched. A children’s book about them called And Tango Makes Three was a smash best seller.
But in Toronto, Buddy and Pedro’s relationship, however you describe it, is destined to come to an end soon because they have a duty. They have top-notch genes, so the zoo intends to separate them from each other and pair them with females for breeding.
Given that African penguins are endangered, the move falls within a species survival plan among zoos.
Buddy, 20, and Pedro, 10, are in Toronto as part of the popular African penguin exhibit that opened at the zoo in May. The two, bred in captivity, were part of a group of 12 penguins — six male, six female — that came to Toronto from zoos in the U.S.
Buddy and Pedro arrived from Toledo, Ohio, where they formed a connection as members of a bachelor flock.
Their relationship, referred to as “pair bonding’’ in zoo speak, continued after they arrived here, say their zoo keepers. Scientists don’t use the words gay or straight when it comes to sexual orientation in animals.
During the day all 12 penguins generally swim and frolic together in their enclosure, which includes a massive pool with underwater windows for the public to view.
But at night Buddy and Pedro pair off together. Every night.
“They do courtship and mating behaviours that females and males would do,’’ one keeper said in an interview.
Those behaviours include making a “braying’’ sound, almost like a donkey, as a mating call. They defend their territory, preen each other, and are constantly standing alone together. In fact when the Star visited the exhibit this week Buddy emerged from the water, followed a few moments later by Pedro. The two huddled together for quite some time.
Their relationship is somewhat of a delicate issue for the keepers to discuss with outsiders. But they’ve all noticed the pair’s bond, and talk about it among themselves.
“This is all new for us,’’ said another keeper, pointing out that the zoo hasn’t had African penguins on display since 1993.
“It’s a complicated issue, but they seem to be in a loving relationship of some sort,’’ says Joe Torzsok, chair of the Toronto zoo board.
It’s not unusual for some species of animals to exhibit homosexual tendencies. Giraffes, some dolphins and some monkeys are known to form same-sex bonds. The case of the Central Park penguins was similar to one at a zoo in Germany where two male penguins did the same thing.
Native to South Africa, the African penguin population has dropped significantly, from millions centuries ago. The animals are declining by a rate of about 2 per cent a year, leading to worries about their long-term sustainability on Earth.
By the late 1990s their population had recovered slightly, with about 224,000 in existence.
Currently the major threats to these penguins include oil pollution and competition from commercial fisheries for their natural food supply.