in totally unrelated news...
They're in love. They're gay. They're penguins... And they're not alone.
Wendell and Cass, two penguins at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island, Brooklyn, live in a soap opera world of seduction and intrigue. Among the 22 male and 10 female African black-footed penguins in the aquarium's exhibit, tales of love, lust and betrayal are the norm. These birds mate for life. But given the disproportionate male-female ratio at the aquarium, some of the females flirt profusely and dump their partners for single males with better nests.
Wendell and Cass, however, take no part in these cunning schemes. They have been completely devoted to each other for the last eight years. In fact, neither one of them has ever been with anyone else, says their keeper, Stephanie Mitchell.
But the partnership of Wendell and Cass adds drama in another way. They're both male. That is to say, they're gay penguins.
This is not unusual. "There are a lot of animals that have same-sex relations, it's just that people don't know about it," Mitchell said. "I mean, Joe Schmoe on the street is not someone who's read all sorts of biology books."
One particular book is helpful in this case. Bruce Bagemihl's "Biological Exuberance," published in 1999, documents homosexual behavior in more than 450 animal species. The list includes grizzly bears, gorillas, flamingos, owls and even several species of salmon.
"The world is, indeed, teeming with homosexual, bisexual and transgendered creatures of every stripe and feather," Bagemihl writes in the first page of his book. "From the Southeastern Blueberry Bee of the United States to more than 130 different bird species worldwide, the 'birds and the bees,' literally, are queer."
In New York, it's the penguins.
At the Central Park Zoo, Silo and Roy, two male Chinstrap penguins, have been in an exclusive relationship for four years. Last mating season, they even fostered an egg together.
"They got all excited when we gave them the egg," said Rob Gramzay, senior keeper for polar birds at the zoo. He took the egg from a young, inexperienced couple that hatched an extra and gave it to Silo and Roy. "And they did a really great job of taking care of the chick and feeding it."
Of the 53 penguins in the Central Park Zoo, Silo and Roy are not the only ones that are gay. In 1997, the park had four pairs of homosexual penguins. In an effort to increase breeding, zookeepers tried to separate them by force. They failed, said Gramzay.
Only one of the eight bonded with a female. The rest went back to same-sex relationships, not necessarily with the same partner. Silo and Roy, long-time homosexuals, got together (or pair-bonded, in official penguin lingo) after that failed experiment.
At the New York Aquarium, no one suspected Wendell and Cass were gay when they first bonded. Penguins don't have external sex organs, so visually there's no surefire way to tell whether they are male or female. But over time, people began to wonder.
In all the years they had been together, neither Wendell nor Cass laid an egg. This was unusual because the keepers knew they copulated regularly. They had often seen Wendell submit to Cass, the more dominating of the two. But one day, a keeper saw Wendell on top.
When penguins have sex, the female lies on her belly and the male climbs on top with his feet and puts his rump around her rump. Then their cloacas (sexual organs) meet, and the sperm is transferred into the female. It's called the cloacal kiss.
Wendell and Cass were clearly kissing both ways. So in 1999, the aquarium did a blood test to determine their gender. It proved they were both male.
Today, they are one of the best couples at the aquarium. "Sometimes they lie on the rocks together," Mitchell said. "They're one of the few couples that like to hang out together outside their nest."
Wendell and Cass have a highly coveted nest. During mating season, several other penguins have tried to steal it. Cass, a fierce fighter, kept them at bay. (Wendell, on the other hand, is "afraid of his own shadow," said Mitchell.)
The appeal of their nest is the location: high up, close to the water and the feeding station. Rumors that they keep the neatest nest at the aquarium because they're gay are not true.
"These are penguins," said Mitchell. "They poop in their nest. Nobody's got a clean nest."