This is the first in a 5 part series on animals that made the Toronto news in 2012

Penguin cropped

African penguin at Toronto Zoo. One of 2012’s animal newsmakers

Rather than list the notable animal science stories that have come out over the last year – something that Jason G. Goldman and Matt Soniak covered quite nicely – I thought I’d focus on some of the big animal stories that have occupied the Toronto news this past year.

As I put together my list, I realized a couple of things. First, that it’s been a very contentious year in animal stories. Of my five stories, four involve lawyers, four involve animal rights activists, and all of them have riled the public to respond, comment, take sides, and in some cases even stage demonstrations.

And this brings me to the second realization–

While these stories are local, the issues they present are global.

What they illustrate to me is that people are looking harder and more critically at our relationship with captive wild animals.  Sure, organizations like PETA and Greenpeace have always taken animal rights activism to the extreme, but I think their hard-lined stance is finally penetrating the mainstream consciousness.

Today regular people are beginning to scrutinize many of our long-held beliefs, questioning how and why we keep wild animals.  Are there animals that don’t belong in zoos? What wild animals should people be allowed to keep as pets? Is treating a wild animal “like a member of the family” fair to the animal? Should wild (or any) animals be used for research? What about for entertainment?

These are all questions that we, as a society, are grappling with. And because they are such hard questions, tempers and passions flare when we have to make decisions based on them.

The last thing I found when I was researching for this list, is that each of these stories deserves a post of its own, so that’s what I’m going to do.  This will be a 5 part series presented in no particular order.

We’ll begin today with The Boys …


The Not Actually “Gay” Penguins Make Babies


Pedro and Buddy sharing a nest

Pedro and Buddy sharing a nest

Near the end of 2011, the Toronto Zoo acquired two male African penguins – Pedro (age 10) and Buddy (age 20). Rather than begin scoping the cute penguin girls, which was the reason they were imported, the guys clung together, preferring the company of each other.

Now, before I go any farther, I should explain that many animals, penguins included, form same-sex bonds under certain circumstances.  A small minority of male King penguins, for instance, will form temporary same-sex pairs if there are not enough female partners available.  However, when presented with females, the penguins will break off their same-sex partnership and form opposite sex pairings.

It is also true that male penguins may form “bachelor” flocks when there is a shortage of females. In fact, Pedro and Buddy came from such a group, and while Buddy had once had a female partner (she died), Pedro had never even been exposed to female penguins.

Tom Mason, the [Toronto] zoo’s curator of birds and invertebrates, says the birds have what’s known as a “social bond” but it’s not necessarily a sexual one.  “They have one another’s backs,” he said.

But that didn’t stop the media from labeling the penguins as gay, homosexual, and bromantic partners. It also didn’t stop the public from going off the anthropomorphic deep end, demanding that the zoo allow them their right to be “gay.”  Petitions broke out.  Facebook groups popped up. Journalists who had no idea what they were talking about took positions. And commenters everywhere lambasted the zoo for its plans to separate Pedro and Buddy and pair them with females.

How sad that 2 animals find love and man has to seperate them to help “protect” and endangered species. Do you think that seperating them is going to turn them straight? No, its not. What you will have is 2 very lonely penquins who will never mate and will have a hole in theyre hearts for as long as they live. Seperating them for any reason is wrong. (Littlebludaewoo, Commenter)

Toronto Zoo penguins await their orders

Toronto Zoo penguins await their orders

Fortunately, scientific heads prevailed, the penguins successfully made the transition to female partners.  Throughout 2012 Pedro and Buddy formed strong pair bonds with their female mates. While some of the other penguins successfully hatched chicks during 2012, the process took a bit longer for Pedro and Buddy. However, this week the zoo announced success!  Both of the famous penguins are now fathers.  Pedro and his mate, Thandiwey hatched a chick on December 16 and Buddy and Farai hatched two chicks on December 23.

This is good news, both for the zoo and for the endangered species. It estimated that the African penguin population today is less than 10% of what it was in 1900.

The reasons for the significant decline in the African Penguin populations are well known. Initially, the decline was due mostly to the exploitation of penguin eggs for food, and habitat alteration and disturbance associated with guano collection at breeding colonies (removal of the guano layer resulted in increased predation of eggs and chicks). These factors have now largely ceased, and the major current threats include competition with commercial fisheries for pelagic fish prey, and oil pollution. Given an annual rate of decline of about 2% per year, there is considerable concern about the long-term viability of African Penguins in the wild. By the late 1990s the population had recovered slightly, and in 1999 there was an estimated 224,000 individuals. (Toronto Zoo)

For more reading on the not-so-gay penguins, see John R. Platt’s Scientific American blog Extinction Countdown —

Should Gay Endangered Penguins be Forced to Mate? (Nov 2011)

Controversial Zoo Penguins Not Gay Afterall? (Nov 2012)


Read:  Newsworthy Animals of 2012, Part 2 – The Ladies.