They're in love. They're gay. They're penguins... And they're not alone.
By Cristina Cardoze
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,
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
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
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."
NY Times, September 13, 2005
March of the Conservatives: Penguin Film as Political Fodder
By JONATHAN MILLER
On the conservative Web site WorldNetDaily.com, an opponent of abortion
wrote that the movie "verified the beauty of life and the rightness of
At a conference for young Republicans, the editor of National Review urged
participants to see the movie because it promoted monogamy. A widely
circulated Christian magazine said it made "a strong case for intelligent
The movie is "March of the Penguins," and of all the reactions it has
evoked, perhaps the most surprising is its appeal to conservatives. They
are hardly its only audience; the film is the second highest grossing
documentary of all time, behind "Fahrenheit 9/11."
But conservative groups have turned its stirring depiction of the mating
ordeals of emperor penguins into an unexpected battle anthem in the culture
"March of the Penguins," the conservative film critic and radio host
Michael Medved said in an interview, is "the motion picture this summer
that most passionately affirms traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice
and child rearing."
Speaking of audiences who feel that movies ignore or belittle such themes,
he added: "This is the first movie they've enjoyed since 'The Passion of
the Christ.' This is 'The 'Passion of the Penguins.' "
In part, the movie's appeal to conservatives may lie in its soft-pedaling
of topics like evolution and global warming. The filmmakers say they did
not consciously avoid those topics - indeed, they say they are strong
believers in evolutionary theory - but they add that they wanted to create
a film that would reach as many people as possible.
"It's obvious that global warming has an impact on the reproduction of the
penguins," Luc Jaquet, the director, told National Geographic Online. "But
much of public opinion appears insensitive to the dangers of global
warming. We have to find other ways to communicate to people about it, not
just lecture them."
In a subsequent interview for this article, he added, "My intention was to
tell the story in the most simple and profound way and to leave it open to
Likewise, the only allusion to evolution in "March of the Penguins" is a
line near the beginning, intoned in the English-language version by the
narrator, Morgan Freeman: "For millions of years they have made their home
on the darkest, driest, windiest and coldest continent on earth. And
they've done so pretty much alone."
The movie goes on to follow the penguins as they trek back and forth over
70 miles of ice to their breeding ground and huddle together to protect
their eggs in temperatures that average 70 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
To Andrew Coffin, writing in the widely circulated Christian publication
World Magazine, that is a winning argument for the theory that life is too
complex to have arisen through random selection.
"That any one of these eggs survives is a remarkable feat - and, some might
suppose, a strong case for intelligent design," he wrote. "It's sad that
acknowledgment of a creator is absent in the examination of such strange
and wonderful animals. But it's also a gap easily filled by family
discussion after the film."
Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, told the young conservatives'
gathering last month: "You have to check out 'March of the Penguins.' It is
an amazing movie. And I have to say, penguins are the really ideal example
of monogamy. These things - the dedication of these birds is just amazing."
Other religious conservatives have seized on the movie as a parable of
steadfast faith. In Sidney, Ohio, Ben Hunt, a minister at the 153 House
Churches Network, has coordinated trips to the local theater to see the
film. (He describes the organization as a Christian denomination with nine
churches spread over Ohio and Minnesota.)
"Some of the circumstances they experienced seemed to parallel those of
Christians," he said of the penguins. "The penguin is falling behind, is
like some Christians falling behind. The path changes every year, yet they
find their way, is like the Holy Spirit."
Mr. Hunt has provided a form on the Web site lionsofgod.com that can be
downloaded and taken to the film. "Please use the notebook, flashlight and
pen provided," it says, "to write down what God speaks to you as He speaks
it to you."
Not all conservatives find the movie a rebuke to Darwin's theory. "If an
Intelligent Designer designed nature," the columnist George F. Will asked
recently, "why did it decide to make breeding so tedious for those penguins?"
The American distributors of the film, Warner Independent Pictures and
National Geographic Feature Films, insist that the movie is simply a tale
about penguins and that any attempt to divine a deeper meaning is misguided.
"We did not have discussions of what should be in from a social, cultural
or political perspective at all," said Adam Leipzig, president of National
Geographic Feature Films. "We just wanted to make sure that it was accurate."
Or as Laura Kim, a vice president of Warner Independent, put it: "You know
what? They're just birds."
Oh, but they have become so much more than that.
Richard A. Blake, co-director of the film studies program at Boston College
and the author of "The Lutheran Milieu of the Films of Ingmar Bergman" said
that like many films, "March of the Penguins" was open to a religious
"You get a sense of these animals - following their natural instincts - are
really exercising virtue that for humans would be quite admirable," he
said. "I could see it as a statement on monogamy or condemnation of gay
marriage or whatever the current agenda is."
Jordan Roberts, who wrote the narration for Mr. Freeman, said he was
surprised that the movie had been adopted by opponents of evolution.
Though he acknowledged that "we didn't talk about the battle between
evolution and creationism," he added, "I did say this has been going on for
millions of years, so I did throw my hat into the ring in terms of the Bible."
As for global warming, Mr. Roberts said only, "I wish the film had more of
But to Mr. Medved, the talk show host, the avoidance of such issues was a
"I think the prime purpose of the movie is to touch people's hearts," he
said. "It's very smart to avoid talking about intelligent design or global
warming. Why bring it in?"