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Friday, June 10, 2005

When gay-rights ideals clash with environmental good sense

One of the stranger news stories that I've seen in a while involves gay penguins at a zoo in Germany.  ABC news reports that:

A German zoo which suspects its entire male penguin population might be gay has now said the birds can remain as same-sex couples.  Humboldt penguins are an endangered species. So when the six humboldts in Bremerhaven failed to breed, the zoo became concerned. . . . The zoo flew in four females from Sweden. . . .

Gay groups around the world deluged the zoo with angry emails and phone calls. The zoo now says its penguins have shown no interest in the new arrivals.  They say the same sex couples are too well-established, and the males can remain gay if they choose.

I have to say that I'm surprised by the story, and a little disappointed.  I understand the desire to let the penguins remain gay, and I understand the need to protect gay rights.  However, species preservation is also a priority.  If these penguins are an endangered species, then zoo keepers were doing just the right thing in trying to find ways to keep the species alive. 

(Also, I also don't see how protesters could accurately assume that these particular penguins were actually gay and not bisexual.  Thus, flying in female penguins also seems like a good idea.  It's probably the only way to tell whether these penguins are bisexual rather than gay.  And rather than being an affront to their sexual identities, it is their only opportunity to let people know whether we've had them pegged wrongly all this time.)

As the story turns out, the penguins were indeed gay, not bisexual.  And this puts us back at square one, from an environmental standpoint.  And here we run into a fundamental tension:  Entire populations of non-breeding same-sex couples are not a recipe for species survival.  In creatures that reproduce sexually, some amount of heterosexual sexual interaction is necessary for the species to survive. 

Perhaps artificial means are appropriate for these penguins -- sperm harvesting, or cloning, or in vitro fertilization.  Perhaps not, I don't know enough about the science to have an opinion. 

But I do think that species preservation comes first.  In the absence of available artificial methods, I think that it could be appropriate, in instances where a species has a small and endangered worldwide population, for keepers to try to breed animals despite even clearly expressed homosexual preferences.  When judging between an animal's right to sexual orientation and the possibility of extinction, I'm going to value species preservation over sexual autonomy.

Posted by Kaimi Wenger on June 10, 2005 at 12:35 PM in Odd World | Permalink


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Penguins are neither gay nor bisexual nor heterosexual. Penguins do, however, tend to partner for life (as do certain other types of birds). If the zoo had flown in additional male penguins--even if these new penguins were extremely attractive--the "gay" penguins would probably not have left their partners for these new penguins either, because they were *already partnered.* That's what's key.

Posted by: Random Lawyer | Jun 12, 2005 1:54:14 AM

Man, it's stuff like this that makes conservatives laugh at us.

Posted by: Jeff V. | Jun 10, 2005 1:33:51 PM

If a species breeds a set of individuals who don't want to breed any further, why should we force them to?
In the wild, they'd die out. Darwin at work. What makes species preservation a goal worthy of employing force, or inflicting duress?

Nothing for or against gays here. If the pengiuns had evolved to be bored by sex, I'd argue for them dying off.

Posted by: Adam | Jun 10, 2005 1:25:24 PM

The very idea that penguins could have gay rights deserving of some special dignity beyond absence-of-cruelty is a little weird. As much as I like the modern ideal that says that animals have the right to be free from cruelty from humans, it's a far cry from that to say that animals have the right to the full exercise of subjectivity, sexual choice, etc. that humans have.

What next? Are we going to demand that penguins and other animals not be bred unless they've shown some equivalent of romantic love for their partners?

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jun 10, 2005 12:53:48 PM

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