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African penguins Pedro (R) and Buddy interact with each other at the Toronto Zoo in Toronto November 8, 2011.

Mark Blinch/Reuters/Mark Blinch/Reuters

Oscar Wilde's lover Bosie called it "the love that dare not speak its name," to which Robertson Davies riposted decades later that now it "won't shut up."

The Toronto Zoo has found out the hard way just how vocal gay-rights supporters can be.

In a bizarre case showing how political the issue remains – even after same-sex marriage has been legalized in Canada and in nine other countries – controversy is reverberating over the zoo's decision to break up a close relationship between two male penguins.

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The African penguins, Buddy and Pedro, exhibit classic mating behaviours. They had formed a bond as part of a "bachelor flock" at a previous zoo and remained close when transferred to the zoo in Toronto. Because of this, the pair were popularly referred to as the 'gay penguins,' despite keepers saying that the bond is not necessarily sexual.

The decision to separate them – stemming from the zoo's desire to take advantage of Buddy and Pedro's good genes by breeding them – has sparked an outcry from commentators around the world. Reaction has included much ribald humour, including comedian Jimmy Kimmel's reference to "Brokeback Iceberg," but many are fiercely critical of the zoo's decision.

It has been called unfair and heart-breaking. Others still are accusing the zoo of attempting to force the penguins into the "patriarchal sex-trade industry".

The contrary view was encapsulated on one of many comment boards discussing the issue. "Just because something occurs 'naturally' in nature, doesn't mean it's right," argued a commenter using the name Yutta.

In spite of the zoo's explanations, the fuss continues to build.

The website Gawker joined the condemnation this week with an article that sarcastically calls Canada "evil and homophobic" and says "gay people—and gay penguins—are sick of being exploited for our genes."

Others, including the British press, have been equally opinionated. The Guardian wondered if it was homophobic to break up the penguins. The Sun torqued the story by taking it a step farther, saying there are "fears" the penguins are gay.

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The Toronto Zoo says that, once the penguins have mated, they will be allowed to renew their relationship.

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