Israel is famously tolerant of its gay community, by and large, for which two penguins at the Ramat Gan Safari park can bless their lucky stars.
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Penguins pair for life, choosing their mate during adolescence. They do the same at the Ramat Gan Zoological Center. Thusly did Suki and Chupchikoni, two young Jackass penguins in the flock at the zoo.
Like in the case of, say, corn snakes or Siberian hamsters, “There is no way of telling a male penguin from a female just by looking at them,” explains Safari spokeswoman Sagit Horowitz. “But usually the keepers can guess the gender by size and behavior.”
The Safari keepers figured that Suki, the smaller one, was female and that Chupchikoni was male, albeit a rather diminutive one. What was sure is that the two South African penguins took up housekeeping together.
Like all penguins, Jackasses – also known as black-footed penguins – live in colonies. The colony geography is neatly mapped out and the couples return to the same nesting sites year after year.
Suki and Chupchikoni have yet to build a burrow of their own, but they have clearly set up house together, creating a scrape into which they collect nesting materials. So far, all very conventional. Nobody at the Safari ever doubted that Chupchikoni was a boy – in fact, in colloquial Hebrew the word “chupchik” means “thingie.” That sort, too.
Meanwhile, an Israeli veterinary student doing research on diagnosing avian malaria, which is rather different from human-type malaria, took samples from the Safari penguins. The flightless fowl suffer badly from the mosquito-borne malady, making them a good subject for testing.
The blood samples taken from the birds were analyzed by a lab in South Africa, which among other things, listed the sex of each avian subject. And lo, the results were not as assumed.
Much to the keepers’ surprise, the results showed that Chupchikoni was a female.
“We had no doubt about Suki, as she is quite small,” said Tamuz Setti, head of the Safari Avian Department, and the blood tests showed that she really is.
Could the two lady penguins have chosen to pair because they had no alternative? Not at all. “There are a few young available males in the exhibit. We are certain that they made a choice to be together,” Setti says.
Suki and Chupchikoni are far from being the only homosexual animals on the record. Gay behavior in penguins has been observed as far back as 1911, when a revolted arctic explorer George Murray Levick described it as “depraved” – in a report written in Greek instead of English, lest the general public learn of the fowls’ predilection, and get ideas. How times have changed.