Zookeepers Explain What It's Like To Raise Celebrity Gay Animal Couples
Celebrity gay animal couples are often in the news. We asked zookeepers what it’s like to be responsible for these animal world civil-sex partnerships—and what you do when they break up.
Kalle and Grobi with keeper Juliane Steinmetz. Photo by Götz Berlik, courtesy of Hagenbeck Aquarium
Few couples have Wikipedia pages of their own, inspire best-selling books, and make international headlines when they break up. But Roy and Silo weren't like other couples. They were gay celebrity chinstrap penguins, and even they couldn't make it work out. When their six-year-relationship ended in 2005 (Silo left Roy for a Californian bird called Scrappy), it proved the adage that love is a cruel mistress when it comes to affairs of the heart—even if you're the most famous homosexual penguins in the world.
Nearly two decades after Roy and Silo first went steady, gay animal couples are now commonplace. We have Irish lesbian penguins at Dingle Oceanworld in Kerry; sapphic gorillas in Rwanda, and even gay German vultures co-parenting an abandoned egg. While evangelical Christians may deny that animals can be capable of same-sex love, it's fair to say that animals—just like humans—are easily able to pair off with those of the same gender.
Of course, as with heterosexual relationships, not all gay couples last the distance. With each break-up the captive gay animal community suffers another loss. I'd reached out to Toronto Zoo whilst researching this piece, hoping to learn more about gay African penguin couple Buddy and Pedro. Turns out, both were only gay for the stay, and had paired off respectively with female penuins Farai and Thandiwe.
So what is it really like to take care of high-profile gay animal couples? Heike Weber looks after Isis and Nordhorn, a male vulture couple in Tierpark Berlin zoo. They've been an item since February 2016, when they started building a nest together. Weber explains that gay vultures don't really do public displays of affection.
"It's not like with people, where they kiss each other. It's not even like with other vultures, where they sit next to and groom each other. I mean, Isis and Nordhorn do sit with each other, but all vultures breed in colonies, so they're used to sitting together." I push Weber hard for schmaltzy anecdotes. Surely this gay German vulture couple aren't just in a loveless marriage of convenience? "No, nothing. Sometimes they swap positions in the nest, so when one goes off to drink the other will take his place. That's it, really."
Unlike gay vultures, lesbian penguins aren't wholly without romance. Louise Overy is head aquarist at Oceanworld in Ireland, and is responsible for looking after gentoo penguin couple Penelope and Missy. They've been an item for three and a half years. "They got together in the same way as male and female penguins court, really. Sometimes when you get females they might bow to each other as a sign of respect, but these two took it to the next level and laid [unfertilized] eggs together."
I ask the burning question: How do you melt a lesbian penguin's heart? "They pick up stones and offer them to each other. And then they build the nest together to court each other. When they're happy the nest is at its best capacity, then they lay eggs." Unlike what tends to happen when human couples move in together, being in a committed relationship doesn't turn lesbian penguins into socially averse bores. "They still hang out with the rest of the group, same as everyone else. They'll all swim together and share things with the other penguins."
Like many an ill-advised holiday romance, gay Humboldt penguins hook up for a while, not for life. Kalle and Grobi are two such seasonal lovers in Hagenbeck Aquarium in Hamburg. Their vet, Dr Adriane Prahl, is similarly matter-of-fact when it comes to describing their arrangement of convenience, not love. "They live in a 'bachelor group' and don't have the possibility to build couples and breed with females."
In a plight familiar to anyone from a small town, they're together because, well, there's no one else. As Humboldt penguins only mate during breeding season, you'll find Kalle and Grobi slurping fish-heads together for only a few months of the year—but don't expect any stone-courting rituals. "We've never seen any signs of breeding behaviour between these two penguins."
Some gay animal couples do get to experience the joys of rearing offspring together, or at least, attempting to. Tierpark's zookeepers hatched a plan to give Isis and Nordhorn an abandoned egg to raise on their own. "We started them off on an artificial egg first, but then we gave them a real egg. Immediately, they started to sit on it and look after it." Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, the egg turned out not to have been fertilized and did not hatch. Similarly, Missy and Penelope were given eggs to incubate last year, though these did not hatch either. Luckily, the experience doesn't seem to have affected their bond. "You can tell they're still together because they often sleep near each other," Overy explains. "It's very sweet really."
With heartwarming stories like these, it's perhaps inevitable that someone would eventually immortalize these animals in fiction. Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson are the award-winning authors (and real-life couple) behind And Tango Makes Three. It tells the story of Roy and Silo's relationship as they adopted baby penguin Tango. Over email, they tell me that they were inspired after reading a New York Times profile on the couple (headline: "The Love That Dare Not Squeak Its Name"). They didn't expect it to become the single most banned book in the United States, or that the Singaporean authorities would take the questionable decision to pulp every copy in its library system.
"We'd been thinking of starting a family ourselves, and at the time gay parents had very few books to read to their children that included families like their own. This seemed like a story we'd want to tell our child," they said. More than that, Parnell and Richardson "identified with those birds. Their determination to have a chick—even to the point of trying to hatch a rock—was something that spoke very deeply to us."
Like most modern and progressive relationships, real-world and fictional penguins both practice an egalitarian form of monogamy. I ask Overy whether she ever sees Penelope and Missy assuming particular gender roles. "Not that I've ever noticed. They build the nest equally. They sit on the nest equally. I've never noticed any, no."
But it's worth pointing out that—like most human couples—not everything lasts. Are Parnell and Richardson sad that Roy and Silo drifted apart, like two lovers floating away on opposing ice sheets?
"C'est la guerre. Chinstrap penguins don't mate for life. We, however, have every intention of doing just that."