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Get to know the Racine Zoo’s gay penguin couple

By Alex Rodriguez

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    RACINE, Wisconsin (The Journal Times) — Stanley and Stevie are quite literally two birds of a feather.

They do everything together. From nesting to preening, these two African penguins live a life of love. Stanley and Stevie are two male penguins in Racine Zoo, and they also happen to be the zoo’s only homosexual couple.

This Pride Month, celebrated every June, the zoo is looking to make Stanley and Stevie the stars of the show.

Stanley and Stevie came to the zoo about a year apart, Stevie in late 2015 and Stanley in late 2016, according to Aszya Summers, curator of animal care and conservation education for the zoo.

The flightless couple didn’t really start to bond and mate together until about a year of knowing each other.

Penguins typically mate for life. Once penguins bond and begin mating, they do everything together: such as swimming, preening each other’s feathers and nesting.

In nature, some same-sex penguin couples have been seen to foster eggs that have either been abandoned or removed from their original parents.

While penguins are also colonial animals that live in large groups, some penguins have no interest in parenthood. In Stanley and Stevie’s case, it’s a bit of both. Stanley shows all the signs of wanting a hatchling like building a nest, incubating pool toys and dummy eggs supplied to him, while Stevie destroys and eats the nests and kicks the toys away.

“Stevie is kind of an average sized penguin and Stanley is on a diet. He will eat just about anything we will give him,” Summers said. “Even though he’s a penguin, he is kind of a bear too.”

Homosexual penguins in captivity are not a new phenomenon.

One of the first reported and well-known instances was that of Roy and Silo, a gay penguin couple in New York’s Central Park Zoo who began coupling in 1998.

According to research from Tufts University in Massachusetts, after “successfully” incubating a rock and then a dummy egg, zookeepers decided to give the couple a real, fertilized egg. Roy and Silo hatched a baby, a female penguin named Tango.

Tango then grew up to form a partnership with another female penguin named Tanuzi.

Homosexual behavior has been documented more than 450 different kinds of animals worldwide and is found in every major geographic region and every major animal group, as documented by Canadian biologist Bruce Bagemihl in his 1999 book, “Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity.”

As the species typically mates for life in nature, penguins are among the animals that are most reported to be coupled in captivity — homosexual or otherwise.

In some species, including giraffes and bonobos, homosexual behavior is more common than heterosexual.

The zoo is currently holding an apparel sale, featuring the likenesses of Stanley and Stevie. The zoo is also planning a staff enrichment pride night, where the staff will paint rainbows around the zoo for the animals, guests and staff.

“We have a very diverse staff at the Racine Zoo, and we wanted to make sure we are celebrating that. Not that there has been negativity around anything in the past, just this year we decided we put more of a spotlight then we have historically,” Summers Said.

African Penguins are currently an endangered species that can be found in the western coast of South Africa, near Cape Town.

The zoo is currently part of the species survival plan, or SSP, for African penguins, meaning the zoo works to ensure their population of 13 penguins are well taken care of. That work helps with conservation, and possibly in the future could fit into reintroduction into the wild, though the latter is currently not the plan for African penguins.

Threats in the wild for the penguins are overfishing, climate change, oil spills and even the harvesting of seabird guano, which is a useful fertilizer for growing populations in South Africa but leaves the penguins without nesting materials. Many zoos have been raising money to build artificial nest boxes in the wild so the penguins have places to raise their eggs.

The penguins, typically associated with icy climates, are actually happy with Wisconsin weather, as African penguins are evolved for warmer climates like southern Africa, unlike the emperor penguins of Antarctica.

“There’s so many things I can tell you about the zoo. This is my favorite place in the universe,” Summers said, “I have worked at a lot of zoos in the country as well as a lot of our staff; we are an AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) zoo in a small community. We have big zoos to the north and south, and I have worked at places that have a lot more resources, but I have chosen to stay here in Racine because this is a community zoo.

“This a place where, instead of seeing tourists all day, I see the same kids and I watch them grow up. I’m invited to high school graduations. The preschoolers turn into summer campers and then they volunteer and we hire the volunteers. People really grow up with and love the zoo, and our staff is amazing and we have such a diverse staff here and a place that makes us feel safe and celebrated. That’s why we are excited to do this Pride Month, as much as we are an animal organization and a conservation organization, all of that does circle back to people and supporting people.”

Stanley and Stevie are currently being held inside with the rest of the birds who live at the zoo, in an effort to prevent the flocks from being contaminated with the avian flu that is found in wild birds such as seagulls and ducks that may find themselves swimming in the outdoor enclosures. Millions of bird deaths, many of them from flocks being exterminated once there’s a confirmed case, have resulted.

According to Summers, the migration period for wild birds should finish soon, so hopefully all the birds in the zoo’s captivity, including Stanley and Stevie, will be able to be outside and greet guests before the month is out.

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