In a bittersweet tale of middle-aged gay love, involving the birth of a surrogate child during a stay in a private “condo,” two male Chinstrap Penguins at the Central Park Zoo have apparently dissolved their same-sex partnership, with one of the frocked gentlemen, well, now shacking up with a female.
According to Rob Gramzay, a senior wild animal keeper, who specializes in the care of polar birds and polar mammals, Silo and Roy, two male penguins, got together in 1998 when they were 11 years old, which, for penguins, is past adolescence and well beyond any socially acceptable phase of, let’s say, locker room hanky-panky.
In the wild, or Antarctica, from where Roy and Silo hailed as eggs in 1987, Chinstraps live to be about 15, what with sea lions and disease. In their swankier, rent-controlled confines, just off Fifth, these well-fed boids are living well into their 30s
Nevertheless, perhaps in a fit of mid-life angst, these two Chinstrappers decided to settle down together, even after Gramzay, who is gay, ordered that several other pairs of same-sex couples be separated in order to make some babies and maintain the zoo’s penguin population.
It happened when they least expected it. Supposedly.
In the spring of 1999, during mating season, some eligible males and a female were taken out of their glass-enclosed pool and artificial ice floe landscape, upstairs at the penguin house, and brought downstairs to
the “condos,” smaller, private quarters, where Roy and Silo promptly went on a honeymoon.
The lovers built a nest, defended it from outsiders
and when not sleeping together, “vocalized,” which is as Gramzay explained it, an ecstatic display whereby two penguins extend their necks and greet each other.
As for any visible lovemaking, any upstairs, downstairs designation, one might say, Gramzay further explained that penguins have internal penises, which makes perfect Darwinian sense considering the temperature on an iceberg. So, while penguins do have semen, they sort of ejaculate internally, and smear their seed about, a process not unlike sitting at the Metropolitan Opera, row J, or high school Latin class, Joey Rowe.
Nor, for that matter, do penguins, the comics aside, smoke cigarettes. So, said Gramzay, “No sexual behavior was ob-served,” before adding, “However, there are lots of time when these birds are alone.”
Regardless, Roy and Silo, that spring and, summer of 1999, were inseparable, and, come on, did mount each other, even sharing their daily nosh of herring and capelin, a smelt-like fish, which, judging by a recent visit to the penguin house near feeding time, has a very pungent odor, like, perhaps, other acquired appreciations of certain male scents.
Then, one day, said Gramzay, “We noticed that one of them had placed a very large rock in the nest and was incubating it and we said, ‘This is interesting.’”
Indeed. Apparently, Roy or Silo, in remodeling their love nest of large pebbles, had come across a stone about the size of a Chinstrap egg, and after vocalizing about it, and perhaps retaining a California attorney, the lovers decided to become surrogate dads.
For Gramzay, that decision provided a unique opportunity to excuse the pun, kill two Chelsea boys with one pebble. It appears that a straight—read, irresponsible—penguin couple were known for “kicking out” their eggs and not properly hatching them.
Opportunity struck for the adoption-eager gay lovers.
First, however, Gramzay needed to be sure that this childrearing urge wasn’t merely a phase, a sort of New York thing that back in the South Pole was unheard of.
Gramzay decided to test the couple with an artificial egg. “When I picked up one the penguins and took away the rock and replaced it with an artificial egg, he got real excited and his partner was right there watching over him.” Apparently, the couple remained like that, taking turns sitting on the facsimile egg—for 34 days. So, 1999 proved that that at the very least Roy and Silo could incubate an egg and pitch in with the hatching.
The next year, once the straight couple kicked out their egg, Roy and Silo were delivered a real egg. About a month later, they gave birth to a healthy female chick. They performed wonderfully. Said Gramzay, “In the raising aspects,” such as feeding their toddler regurgitated smelt and keeping her from wandering off the edge of the make believe ice into freezing water, “they acted like all other penguin parents.”
However, by 2003’s mating season, perhaps in some sort of post-partem dilemma, or maybe simply out of boredom, heaven forbid, Roy was spotted heading to another nest, leaving Silo alone on their mound of pebbles. To make matters only worse, a female Chinstrap, named Tequila, began to tangle with Silo, eventually bringing Pat, her male partner (yes, I double-checked with the senior keeper), to help evict Silo and claim squatters’ rights.
“So, Silo needed to go back into the colony,” said Gramzay
Apparently, since then, Roy and Tequila have settled down, in yet another configuration of family as complex, and diverse, as say, Nyack, New York.
Last year, reported Gramzay, four male and one female same-sex couples paired up during mating.
“Most were fairly young, or at least had one young partner in the pair,” noted Gramzay, whose overall conclusion about gay penguins and parenthood is that “If these guys,” meaning Roy and Silo, “could raise a chick, it’s not that far off since both penguin sexes share parenting responsibilities.”
Gramzay mentioned that the staff, some of whom are gay, are soberly keeping their eyes on tightly-strapped equila and Roy, and his whimsical ways, as well as Silo, and whether he moves on, or is still healing.
But, ah, the summer of 2000. Wasn’t it, well—just grand, simply revolutionary, inside the penguin house?
“Yes,” agreed Gramzay, “the tone at work even with the gay employees was that everyone thought it was interesting But we kept it focused on the science.”