Homo sapiens could stand to learn a thing or two from the animal kingdom.
Photo of polar bear and seagulls via Pixabay; photo of penguins via Public Domain Pictures.
This Valentine’s Day, we’re celebrating strange and misfit love stories. Because love is weird, and weirdo love is the best love.
If you don’t already believe that Valentine’s Day is a con engineered by card manufacturing companies and chocolatiers, I’m sorry but I can’t help you. I am of the firm belief that humanity as a species has long since extinguished its potential for love and kinship. (Before you ask, it happened sometime in between Justin Timberlake dumping Britney and the invention of Tinder.) If you want a feel-good story about romance on February 14, your best bet is the animal kingdom.
Animals don’t leave their socks all over the floor, they don’t buy cheap flowers, and they definitely don’t sometimes look at you like they wish they were somewhere else. And if you’ve ever spoken to the zookeepers who are tasked with facilitating and nurturing such love affairs between their wards, you’ll know that the love between animals runs so deep that even humans are moved by it. Hell, animals have so much love to offer that sometimes they even fall for inanimate objects. So if you’re worried that your boyfriend or girlfriend doesn’t love you, why not benchmark their affection against the true standard bearers for love—our furry and feathered friends?
In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, here are some of the animal couples who show that romance isn’t dead.
Thomas the goose and his polyamorous threesome
In February, the world mourned the death of Thomas, a 40-year-old goose from the Wellington Bird Rehabilitation Trust in New Zealand. The celebrity goose first rose to fame when he entered a relationship with a male black swan named Henry, and the happy interspecies couple stayed together for some 20 years. That’s when a female swan called Henrietta waddled into the picture and claimed Henry’s heart.
Or not, as it happened. Even though Henrietta and Henry began nesting, Thomas stuck around. In fact, he helped to bring up Henrietta and Henry’s swan offspring, playing dad to no less than 68 of their cygnets. To the delight of local birdwatchers, the throuple—as polyamorous people would dub a relationship between three partners—were regularly spotted waddling around Waimanu Lagoon with their infants.
Unfortunately, Henry died at the age of 30 and Henrietta ditched Thomas for another mate, leaving him to mourn the loss of his first love alone. Thomas lost his sight to cataracts in his old age, but remained a beloved resident of the Wellington Bird Rehabilitation until his death.
“Thank you Thomas for proving that there is life even after sight,” wrote his carers at the center on Facebook. “You were a true inspiration for the work we do and the things we are able to achieve for the animals in our care.”
The lesbian polar bear Szenja who died of a broken heart
When SeaWorld San Diego moved their 21-year-old polar bear Snowflake to Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium for breeding purposes, they probably didn’t anticipate the death of their only other polar bear, Szenja.
That said, the writing on the wall was obvious to anybody with a passing knowledge of lesbians: Snowflake and Szenja were a committed couple. After all, they’d lived and devoured raw meat together for 20 years, and were well known to visitors for their frolicksome antics in the pool. (There was even a petition calling on SeaWorld not to separate the two “best friends.”)
Regardless, SeaWorld San Diego went ahead with the move anyway, and Szenja began to show signs of ill health, including listlessness and lack of appetite. She died two months later of what the Los Angeles Times described as a “brief, unexplained illness.”
“Szenja died of a broken heart,” PETA executive vice president Tracy Reiman told the San Diego Union-Tribunel. “After losing her companion of 20 years when SeaWorld shipped Snowflake to the Pittsburgh Zoo in order to breed more miserable polar bears, Szenja did what anyone would do when they lose all hope, she gave up.”
SeaWorld has denied that Szenja died of heartbreak.
Nigel the gannet bird and his bird doll lover
In another feathery tale of love from New Zealand, this month also saw the loss of Nigel, an Australasian gannet who fell in love with a concrete replica gannet. The imitation birds were first installed by conservation officials who hoped to lure gannets to an uninhabited Island for breeding purposes, but Nigel was the only one who heeded the call of romance.
In 2013, Nigel arrived at Mana Island and immediately struck up a courtship with one of the 80 fake gannets on its shores. He attempted to groom her, built a nest for her, and even talked to her. Even after three flesh-and-blood gannets landed on the island, Nigel remained loyal to his immovable mate. “Nigel was very faithful to the colony,” said Department of Conservation ranger Chris Bell, who found his body amid his adopted concrete family.
Even after his death, Nigel faced public shaming for his choice of mate. “Even concrete birds do not owe you affection, Nigel,” one Twitter user said. “Stop wooing a bird who is not interested.”
“This is quite possibly THE WORST tweet that has ever been tweeted,” another user replied. “Well done.”
Regardless of your feelings on whether a truly consensual relationship can exist between an Australasian gannet and a concrete replica, ask yourself: When was the last time someone groomed your feathers without you asking?
Grape-kun the penguin and his anime girlfriend
In 2017, Humboldt penguin Grape-kun became the toast of Tobu Zoo in Japan when he fell head over heels for a cardboard cutout of an anime character. First introduced to Grape-kun’s enclosure after Grape-kun had been dumped by a real-life female mate, Hululu was only meant to promote the Japanese cartoon Kemono Friends, where she plays the anthromorphic personification of a penguin. Instead, Hululu and Grape-kun found love.
After spending weeks in post break-up misery, Grape-kun quickly rebounded with Hululu. He even started displaying typical mating behavior around Hululu, including stretching out his wings around the cardboard figure. When zookeepers attempted to remove Hululu during a typhoon to make sure she didn’t blow away, Grape-kun’s distress prompted them to quickly return her. Visitors began flocking to the Humboldt penguin enclosure to take photos of Grape-kun staring lovingly at his cardboard girlfriend, and people even began making fan art of the pair.
While a cardboard cutout’s love is forever, Humboldt penguins are sadly not built to last. In October of last year, Tobu Zoo announced that Grape-kun had passed away at the age of 20: "Sincere thanks to everyone for supporting him until now,” the zoo said on Twitter. “Thank you also to Hululu, who watched over him until the very end.”
The lesbian seagulls of the 1970s
In 1977, scientists Molly and George Hunt published groundbreaking research that first introduced the world to the idea of animal homosexuality. After noticing a female seagull couple nesting on an island off the coast of California, they realized that the pair were actually raising chicks together—and they weren’t the only ones.
Further investigation showed that 14 percent of seagull couples on the island were females in committed monogamous same-sex pairings, many raising young of their own. (The female gulls would wander off to procreate with males, but always returned to raise the resulting chicks with their same-sex partner.)
Unfortunately, this being the 70s, the world was not ready for lesbian seagulls. Conservative politicians tried to torpedo their funding from the National Science Foundation, and a citizens’ group announced that, in contrast to the godless seagulls of the West Coast, “100% of the sea gulls in the five boroughs of New York City were heterosexual.”
The public outrage didn’t stop scientists from noting that the lesbian seagulls weren’t a one-off rarity—the pairs observed were, in fact, completely able to remain in committed relationships and raise healthy offspring of their own. “The female-female pairs stayed together from one year to the next. Those that had viable eggs were perfectly able to raise them,” George Hunt told Quartz some decades later. ““The extreme right was very distressed.”