Save the gay penguins!

Buddy and Pedro found love at the zoo -- but now obligation to their dwindling species is driving them apart


Mary Elizabeth Williams
November 10, 2011 8:00PM (UTC)

It's a poignant story of forbidden love and forced separation. The couple has only had eyes for each other even before they moved to Toronto last spring. They do things other couples like to do – go swimming, preen for each other, sleep together. But because they're two guys -- guys with obligations to keep their families going – they're being split up and thrown into the singles pool. Because they reside in Canada, however, Buddy and Pedro, the gay African penguins, will not be obliged to attend any Michele Bachmann rallies.

The story of Buddy and Pedro has made headlines around the world. Despite their age difference (at 20, Buddy is twice as old as Pedro) The Star reports that that two "formed a connection… as part of a bachelor flock" back in Toledo. The relationship continued in Toronto, where they bray mating calls to each other, hang out near each other, and "pair off together every night" in their impeccable, John Derian-appointed burrow. Toronto zoo board chair Joe Torzsok said last week that "It's a complicated issue, but they seem to be in a loving relationship of some sort."

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But that loving relationship will soon come to and end. Buddy and Pedro are an endangered breed, which means that zoo officials want them to turn off the Rufus Wainwright, join the football team and start mixing with the ladies. A generation ago, there were an estimated 225,000 African penguins in the wild. Now their population is 60,000 - and shrinking rapidly. The population in captivity is therefore routinely paired off and "and even moved to different zoos" in the hopes of fruitful unions. Tom Mason, the zoo's curator of birds and invertebrates, told the National Post hopefully Monday that "The [zoo's] two girls have been following them; we just have to get the boys interested in looking at them." Oh, Tom. If that didn't work on our prom dates, it doesn't sound like a sure bet for Buddy and Pedro.

Yet gay penguins do sometimes change their stripes. Roy and Silo, New York's happily paired male chinstrap penguins -- who even raised a child together – split after Silo took up with a homewrecking lady penguin named Scrappy. San Francisco's Harry and Pepper likewise parted ways when a woman came between them. Breakups happen, be you a Kardashian or an African penguin.

Yet the idea of love – enduring, devoted love – is so deeply engrained in us that it's easy to ascribe romantic hopes even on flightless birds. When we want to see cold-eyed creatures reproducing out of some sense of duty to the bloodline, we'll watch the royal family. But dammit, we expect more for our penguins. Change.org already has a petition to "stop The Toronto Zoo from ruining the lives of these two penguins and send a message that forcing gay creatures to mate with the opposite gender will not make them straight." But the Toronto Zoo isn't Exodus International, nor is this story "Brokeback Mountain" with krill. Nobody's trying to make Pedro and Buddy live a lie. They just hope they can hook up a few times for the sake of the whole family.

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Like you, I want Buddy and Pedro to have a long and happy life together, making "It Gets Better" videos of encouragement for other gay penguins, serving as grand marshals of the Gay Penguin Pride parade, spending summers frolicking off the coast of Provincetown. No one's disputing that animals are profoundly capable of genuine bonds and affection -- and yes, that includes the gay kind. And let's face it, Buddy and Pedro have already found what some of us spend a lifetime fruitlessly chasing. But they are, you know, penguins. As Tom Mason explains, "If [they] weren't genetically important, then we'd let them do their thing." So maybe they can go off and do their thing with girls for a while, for the sake of the species, before returning to each other's tiny flapping wings. You don't have to marry them, Pedro and Buddy. Just don't break their hearts.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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