The Moral Exploitation of Penguins

Of all God’s creatures, those most amiable must include koalas, pandas, dolphins and penguins, only the last two of which are aquatic. If one goes with most evolutionists, penguins used to fly and flying would have made it easier to escape their chief enemy the leopard seal, but their ability to swim made flying too much of an effort and gradually their wings became attenuated. Perhaps the closest we have today to the last of the flying penguins is the pelagic cormorants (Phalacrocoras pelagicus) and they seem to have retained their soaring ability only by swimming with their feet.  Emperor penguins can quickly dive to 1,500 feet using their former wings that had become flippers, and isotope analysis of how they burn energy indicates that such consumption exhausted the biomechanical energy for flying.  This is true of all penguins. Of the 17 species of penguins, just four breed on the Antarctic continent:  the Adelie, the Emperor, and the Chinstrap among them.  The largest species is the Macaroni penguin, which Australian ornithologists tend to lump together with the Royal Penguin, reducing the number of species to sixteen.  One respected study numbers the Macaronis at 11,654,000 pairs, and the amateur can only wonder at how this was calculated, and at what cost to the social lives of those who counted them.

It is the Chinstrap penguin (Pygoscelis antarctica) on which we are focused. Wherever you find them:  Antarctica, South Shetland, South Georgia, Bouvet Island, Deception Island or the sunnier South Sandwich Islands, their distinctive black band around the necks cannot be missed, and hence their name. Depending on their breeding cycle, their weight can drop from more than thirteen pounds to between six and seven pounds, and breeding is the issue here. While my contempt for the unfitting things that The New York Times prints is not effortlessly concealed, I was especially exercised by the way that declining journal has over the years used dolphins and other creatures, including the Chinstrap penguin, to promote an antinomian theory that unnatural sexual activity is okay.  Specifically, I allude to its article published on February 7, 2004 under the belabored title, “Love That Dare Not Squeak its Name.”  First of all, penguins do not “squeak.”  That is the sort of stereotyping that The New York Times general eschews, save in the instances of supply-side economists, black conservatives, and practicing Christians.  Penguins make various sounds: the African, Humboldt Galapagos and Magallanic penguins make a braying sound very much like donkeys, while the Yellow-eyed penguin trills, the King penguin sounds like a trumpet, and our immediate concern, the Chinstrap, has a shrill voice almost like a scream.  None of them, dear editors of The York Times, squeaks.  A simple trip to the Central Park Zoo would confirm this, and if those editors had made the trip, they would not have made their big mistake:  the announcement that some Chinstrap penguins are homosexual.

Polemicists exaggerate statistics as a matter of policy and The New York Times devotes its front page, “Style Section” and even obituaries to creating the illusion that there are far more, “non- heterosexuals,” than there really are.  Like the quest for the “gay gene” which, like the “missing link” is, as Chesterton pointed out, missing, a constant effort is afoot to find rampant unnatural activity in nature to justify it as a norm.  This is why “The Grey Lady” (or, “The Grey Person”) trumpeted like a King penguin a claim that two male Chinstrap penguins at the Central Park Zoo, were attracted to each other. They claimed that Roy and Silo had been inseparable for nearly six years and rubbed their necks in “ecstatic behavior.” More than that, they eschewed female companionship.  Their chief keeper, Rob Gramzay, claimed that they tried to incubate a rock.  When, as expected, this did not work, he gave them a fertile egg which hatched after Roy and Silo sat on it for thirty-four days.  The New York Times seems to have inferred from this a lesson in surrogate parenthood. Roy and Silo fed their chick named Tango until she could manage on her own.  As the paper of record noted, “Mr. Gramzay is full of praise for them.” There was an added comment that Mr. Gramzay “never saw the pair complete a sex act, though the two did engage in mating rituals like entwining their necks and vocalizing to one another.”

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Call it coincidence, but homosexual penguins suddenly began to pop up all over the world.  Newspapers in Toronto reported the amorous activities of African penguins Buddy and Pedro in their local zoo although Buddy seems to have been bi-sexual as evidenced in his quick surrender to the affections of a female penguin named Farai.  Almost exactly one year after the startling announcement in The New York Times about Roy and Silo, the Bremerhaven Zoo disclosed that it had tried but failed to split up three homosexual pairs of penguins by introducing them to some females of the same species imported from Sweden.  Zoo director Heike Huecke declared this “aversion therapy” a disappointment and told a reporter that “All sorts of gay and lesbian associations have been e-mailing and calling in to protest.”  Penguins had become a symbol of their struggle for gender neutrality. Not to be outdone, scientists at Tokyo’s Rikkyo University listed about twenty same-sex pairs in sixteen zoos in Japan.  As the Netherlands have been more libertine in sexual taxonomy, it is no surprise that keepers in the Odense Zoo in Denmark disclosed that two homosexual male penguins had tried to steal eggs from mother penguins and even went to the extreme of attempting to incubate a dead herring.  London’s Daily Mail then ran an account of Inca and Rayas, two male penguins at Faunia Park in Madrid who had maintained a relationship exactly the same length of time as the prototypical Roy and Silo in New York.

As members of the animal kingdom share with man to some degree the consequences of a fallen world, their behavior should not be taken as a model of prelapsarian perfection.  If, pace Cole Porter, even educated fleas do it, doing it a different way does not make it a right way. Even poor little lambs go astray.  Either accept that to go astray is not right, or you have to say that no one strays.  A few years ago in the San Diego zoo, an orangutan was upset by a woman’s hat and threw his own excrement at it.  This does not make him an arbiter of fashion, nor should dissolute penguins be cited as evidence in moral discourse.

Within months after The New York Times scooped the tabloids on what was going on in the Central Park penguin pavilion, Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson wrote a book about Roy and Silo for children entitled And Tango Makes Three. According to one review, “The book follows the six years of their life when they formed a couple and were given an egg to raise.”  It received many awards from groups that apparently look to penguins as moral templates.  According to the American Library Association, And Tango Makes Three was the most “challenged” book of 2006, 2007, and 2008 and returned to the top rank in 2010.  In Shiloh, Illinois, a school superintendent rejected parents’ pleas that the book be put in a restricted area of the library. On October 2, 2009, The New York Times announced that, “as life imitates art,” Parnell and Richardson “have their own baby Tango. In February, the gay couple, who live in the West Village, had their first child. The baby, Gemma Parnell-Richardson, was born to a surrogate mother, the egg fertilized by sperm from one of the men. (Which one was left to chance.)”  Thus they were spared the indignity of trying to incubate a rock or a dead herring.

A history professor at Yale, John Boswell, was a convert to Roman Catholicism and died in 1994 from AIDS related complications at the age of 47, having spent much of his career arguing that the Church had sanctioned “adelphopoiesis” as a rite uniting two person of the same sex in a romantic and sexual bond.  His critics pointed out the many flaws in his thesis, most importantly his misinterpretation of the traditions of fraternity and “blood brotherhood.”  He used iconography, such as images of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, as evidence for his propaganda, rather the way journalists have used penguins.  All of them nimbly ignored the Fathers such as St. John Chrysostom, who probably had never seen a penguin, but who wrote in his fourth Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans that not even wild animals go beyond the boundaries of a male uniting with a female, or what the sixteenth canon of the Council of Ancyra in 314 called “doing the irrational” (alogeuesthai).

After its intrusion into the domestic manners of Roy and Silo, The New York Times printed a correction on February 23, 2004:  “A picture in Arts & Ideas on Feb. 7 with an article about homosexual behavior in animals, including bottlenose dolphins, was published in error. It showed killer whales.”  This does not increase our confidence in the newspaper, nor does it make the chaste swimmer eager to go far from the beach.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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