Watch out Barbie and Ken, Marge and Homer and all you Disney princesses! There’s now Wendell and Cass, Roy and Silo and many others giving competition to heterosexual coupledom. One look at the animal world is enough to prove that being gay, bi or a gender bender is no big deal. It's just that a few straight-laced humans get their knickers all in a twist when thinking of the many famous gay animal couples…
Take Ninio for example, a 10-year old African elephant in a zoo in Poznan, Poland who enraged local politicians earlier this year over his preference for hanging out with his mates rather than mating with the ladies.
“We didn't pay 37 million zlotys ($11 million) for the largest elephant house in Europe to have a gay elephant live there,” said an enraged Michal Grzes of Poland's opposition party Law and Justice.
Ninio, the little elephant who wouldn’t.
Elephant Ninio's offence? Hitting female elephants with his trunk while being affectionate to the males. Given that male elephants reach maturity at around 10 years of age, Ninio is going through his teenage years. And his behaviour doesn’t sound so different from a species we know.
In the wild, elephant males live apart from the general herd (read: women and children) and form companionships that include sexual behaviour like mounting, kissing and trunk intertwining.
Those in charge, quick to label Ninio gay, don’t seem to take these facts into account. Ninio, who has already changed three zoos because of his behaviour, has been separated from the other animals, all the while attracting sympathetic visitors once his story went popular.
I heart you.
But he’s not alone. According to Bruce Bagemihl's ground-breaking book Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (1999), about 1,500 species from primates to worms display same-sex sexual behaviour; well documented for some 500 of them.
Especially among penguins, “gay” behaviour has created headlines over the years: Two male penguins at Polar Land in Harbin, northern China, became front-page news in December 2008 for stealing eggs from heterosexual penguin couples and replacing them with stones. The zoo reacted by separating them from the other penguins with a picket fence.
Fighting across the white picket fence.
In response to angry visitors who deemed this treatment unfair, zoo keepers caved in: “We decided to give them two eggs from another couple whose hatching ability had been poor and they've turned out to be the best parents in the whole zoo,” said one of them.
Wendell and Cass, two African black-footed penguins at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island, Brooklyn, had lived happily together for many years, undisturbed, until genetic testing (the only way to tell a penguin’s sex) in 2002 confirmed that they were actually two males. This didn’t surprise zoo staff who had suspected the same but the press was all over the story, attributing Wendell and Cass a particularly clean and tidy nest, devotion and other humanising qualities. The penguins had met when they were 3 or 4 years old and stayed together for 7 years until Cass died.
Wendell and Cass
Roy and Silo, two male Chinstrap penguins at the Central Park Zoo, met one fine spring day in 1998 at the water tank and decided to raise their offspring together – first an egg-shaped rock that they cared for, then another penguin’s egg. Their break-up in 2005 was highly popularised when Silo took off with a female penguin named Scrappy, leaving Roy to sit “disconsolately at the edge of the penguin area, staring at the wall.”
Chinstrap penguin with two chicks.
Dashik and Yehuda, two male vultures at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, didn’t know what the fuss was all about ten years ago when they became a couple and built a nest together. After incubating an artificial egg for 45 days, the zoo replaced it with a baby vulture and the two fathers raised the chick together.
Their relationship broke up after Yehuda fell for a new female vulture brought to the zoo. Dashik apparently became depressed and was moved to a different zoo but did build a nest with a female vulture eventually.
Fathers? Yes, we can be fathers.
What’s interesting about the stories is not so much the facts as the reaction to them. Animal relationships get labeled as fiery romances, steamy affairs and the like and the animals engaging in same-sex behaviour are called gay. However, as most examples show, many animal species happily switch between male and female partners without getting half as confused as we humans. Gay? Bisexual? Who cares! seems to be their motto.
But what would be their motivation? Nathan Bailey, a post-doctoral researcher at U.C. Riverside and his team found out in a recent study that same-sex sexual behavior in animals can be an adaptional strategy and a force. In bird colonies with an unequal ratio of females to males for example, two females pairing up provides an advantage when sharing parenting responsibilities.
In many species, homosexuality isn’t only common, it’s the norm. Male dolphins for example pair up and take care of each other. This care does include sexual behaviour and the occasional underwater orgy. They will still hook up with the females but only for mating season.
Dolphins, happy and gay.
When it comes to matriarchal animal societies, female sexual behavior has puzzled researchers for ages. Female hyenas especially have confused scientists for centuries simply because they have a sex organ that looks like a penis – hence they were considered gender benders or even said to change their sex.
In hyena society, those animals exposed to the most testosterone fair best – usually female hyenas that tend to be larger and more aggressive than the males. The fact that female hyenas display what are traditionally called “male” traits in patriarchal societies and also engage in sex with each other didn’t help quell the scientists’ confusion one bit.
Gender bender? Me? Laughable.
They should have just looked at the bonobo chimpanzees, another matriarchal society and some of our closest relatives, all uniformly bisexual and willing to get it on anytime, anywhere. Females lead the way with two-thirds of the same sex action performed by them, by the way.
Homosexuality in the animal kingdom has long been dismissed as unimportant by animal researchers but in view of the staggering facts, it can no longer be ignored. It is a fascinating phenomenon with a purpose depending on an animal group’s make-up, psychology and sexual needs. More and more scientists are trying to get their minds around the idea that sexual orientation doesn’t exist in the animal kingdom at all.
Same-sex sexual behaviour sure isn’t as big a deal for our furry, feathered and other critter friends as it is for humans where homophobia is rampant. The harmless children’s book And Tango Makes Three (2005) by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell created a stir because it is about two male penguins raising a baby. A formal request for its removal was submitted so that the American Library Association had to put it on its “challenged list” for those materials questioned because of content or appropriateness.
What can we say? Maybe that sometimes such a well developed brain isn’t such a good thing? The male flour beetle, for example, an instinct-driven, rather plucky and pragmatic fellow, does whatever feels right without a care in the world. It’s been recorded that “male flour beetles are believed by scientists to engage in gay sex to practice mating as well as rid themselves of "old, less effective" sperm.”
Can’t argue with that.
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