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Lawmakers in the United States didn't seem to be taking the spirit of Valentine's Day to heart this week as the fight over same-sex marriage heated up. In Massachusetts and in Washington, politicians sparred over proposed amendments to state and federal constitutions that would ban same-sex marriage. So as I listened to frothing commentators on late-night talk radio here in so-called liberal New York, who were trying to connect the Super Bowl nipple affair with homosexual unions, my thoughts naturally turned to the penguins in Central Park.

Roy and Silo are two cute-as-a-button chinstrap penguins who waddled into the news this week after being outed by administrators at the Central Park Zoo. They've been together for about six years and seem as committed to each other as any two penguins, a species that mates for life. (Dr. Dan Wharton, the director of the zoo, clarified for me that the "mate for life" term we apply to birds and most pair-bonding animals is about as accurate as that applied to humans. "There are significant divorce rates, depending on the species, of up to 50 or 60 per cent," he said.)

Roy and Silo aren't merely sexual toward each other. After all, occasional homosexuality occurs in a significant portion of the animal kingdom among animals that are "straight" most of the time. Bonobo apes, for example, are famously omnivorous in their sexuality, like Britney Spears when the cameras are rolling.

Dr. Wharton says the behaviour of Roy and Silo includes "full courtship displays, nest building, and the devotion you'd see between mates." They've refused offers of intimate company from available female penguins, though they have been known to hit the raw bar on occasion with a bitter female to offer a sympathetic ear to the ladies' squawking about all the nice male penguins being already taken.

Animals are now at the frontier in the debate over whether homosexuality is a lifestyle choice or a natural characteristic. Gay advocates point to homosexuality in the animal kingdom as proof of the latter; critics say same-sex sexuality among animals only underscores its animalistic nature.

None of this seems to matter much to Roy and Silo, who have become the poster penguins for gay parentage. There is another male-male penguin couple at the zoo, and one female-female couple too, but about three years ago Roy and Silo distinguished themselves by their eagerness to hatch a chick, when they plopped a rock in their nest and mimicked incubating behaviour. Their chief keeper replaced the rock with a fertilized egg, and the two birds took turns keeping it warm. When the chick hatched, they reared it until it was ready to venture into the penguin pool on its own.

I spoke with some friends who are gay parents of young children. They said they had no plans to rush their children to the zoo to show them the gay penguins unless the Bush administration turns the environment so toxic that they have no choice but to politicize their kids.

Dr. Wharton said that Roy and Silo appear content with their situation, though if they wanted to make their union official he'd consider letting them visit the Vancouver Aquarium or the Toronto Zoo for a weekend. "They have been morally supported quite well here in New York," he added.

But then, this is New York.

I received a report about a couple of gay penguins at the Baltimore Zoo from someone who used to work there, but spokesperson Ben Gross said none of the current staff knew of such behaviour. I wondered aloud if perhaps they were just, you know, turning a blind eye to what was going on in their own house, like parents who didn't want to know why their 16-year-old son won't stop playing Streisand.

But he said the zoo would welcome any same-sex behaviour. "We're all about celebrating the wildlife in wild places."

The folks at the San Francisco Zoo also seem proud of their same-sex couples. Spokesperson Nancy Chan boasted to me of a pair of "lesbian penguins" (her term) they used to have named Ditz and Betty, "who kept the loveliest house." She added that for about 20 years the zoo also had a pair of monogamous "lesbian geese," called Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. "They had a male that they had access to, but they didn't want anything to do with him," she said.

Stein and Toklas were Canada geese (are we surprised?), but the birds gave no indication that they wanted to return home, despite their ability to fly away at any point. Why would they leave? They had more than enough free fish, and San Francisco is awfully welcoming to birds and humans who would normally fall to the margins of society elsewhere -- even letting the first two of the latter species marry on Thursday.

Ms. Chan began to tell me about other animals at the zoo who exhibited behaviour that strayed from the classical opposite-sex pairing, like the brother and sister Siberian tigers who got it on, but I stopped her: It sounded too much like a Bertolucci film.

 

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