Column Date 2006-01-22

The Penguin Follies

This week, the gay penguins were in the news. No, that’s not a typo.

Gay penguins.

Recently, the zookeepers at the Bremerhaven Zoo, in Germany, discovered a problem. They had five pairs of penguins in the zoo that, after many years of mating, had produced just one penguin baby. This was disturbing, particularly since these penguins, from South America, are considered an endangered species. (To be fair, the zoo director said, one couple adopted a rock that they protected like an egg. Obviously, some kind of mothering instinct had kicked in, but still just one offspring.)

So they did what they thought any reputable zoo would do. They ordered DNA tests for all the penguins, to figure out what was wrong. What was wrong, it turns out, is the oldest story in the book: Three of the five penguin couples were in homosexual relationships. That’s right: 60 percent of the zoo’s penguins were gay.

But the Bremerhaven zookeepers were unfazed. In their infinite wisdom, they decided to try to make the gay penguins go straight. I’m not kidding. The zoo flew in four female penguins.

And not just ordinary female penguins, mind you, female penguins from Sweden. Now, a penguin—even a sexy Swedish one—may not turn you on. But if you were a penguin, and cooped up in a German zoo, and a gorgeous Swedish female waddled by (probably topless, like the Swedish sunbathers who come out every spring in Stockholm), you might think differently. These black-and-white babes, zookeepers hoped, would entice the gay males to abandon their lovers and form new relationships. That, of course, would eventually give the zoo the chicks it wanted.

It gets better. In case the plan didn’t work, zookeepers also flew in two new Swedish male penguins “so that the ladies don’t miss out altogether,” the zoo director reportedly said.

How will this curious scheme go over with the penguins? Well, everything seems to be on hold right now, and we may never know. You see, word about the zoo’s plan unleashed a storm of criticism.

“All sorts of gay and lesbian associations have been e-mailing and calling in to protest,” a zoo spokesman told Reuters.

Questions abound: How come the zoo didn’t know that 60 percent of the original penguins were male in the first place? And if it’s so hard to tell males from females, what about the four new (supposedly) female penguins from Sweden? Or, for that matter, what about the sexual preferences of the two new Swedish males?

Then we get to the heart of the debate: Are the penguins gay because of ‘Nature’? Were they born that way? Or was it ‘Nurture’? Did penguin society somehow force them into being gay? Were they hanging around gay penguin bars (or watching penguin porn movies)?

All in all, it seems to me that the Bremerhaven Zoo should have kept the whole penguin affair quiet.

Maybe “don’t ask, don’t tell” is the best policy after all.