Love is love, even in the animal kingdom. Sometimes animals form family units that may defy the conventional norms but are no less caring and loving.
That was the case recently at one zoo, as a same-sex pair of penguins hatched and cared for a baby chick.
The Rosamond Gifford Zoo, in Syracuse, New York, is home to a colony of 28 Humboldt penguins. Two of these birds, Elmer and Lima — both male adult penguins — reportedly formed a “mating bond” with one another this season, building a nest together and defending their territory.
It isn’t unheard of for same-sex partnerships to occur among penguins. Two male birds or two female birds will partner up and go through the same natural mating rituals as their hetero counterparts — including incubating and hatching eggs.
So when the zoo was in need of foster parents to look after hatchlings, they decided to see if Elmer and Lima would team up to take care of an egg.
The zoo explained in a press release that they sometimes rely on fosters to give a fertilized egg the best chance of survival: they have some pairs who have “a history of inadvertently breaking their fertilized eggs.” In these cases, they will swap the egg for a “dummy egg” and give the real egg to a more responsible couple.
According to Zoo Director Ted Fox, caring for an egg “takes practice” and they will use a dummy egg to test which penguin couples are best suited to the job. Elmer and Lima, while both males, seemed to be perfect parents.
“Elmer and Lima were exemplary in every aspect of egg care,” Fox said in the press release.
So on December 23, after a penguin named Poquita laid an egg with a viable embryo, the zoo counted on Elmer and Lima to step in as fosters.
As expected, the couple knocked it out of the park. After working together to incubate the egg, the baby penguin hatched on January 1, and they’ve continued to be doting parents.
It marks the first time a hatchling has been raised by a same-sex penguin couple in the zoo’s history.
“At our first health check when the chick was five days old, it weighed 226 grams (8 ounces),” Fox said. “It continues to be brooded and cared for by both Elmer and Lima, who are doing a great job.”
The Humboldt penguin is listed as a vulnerable species by the IUCN Red List, with a decreasing population. The Rosamond Gifford Zoo has been part of the Species Survival Plan for Humboldt penguins since 2005 and is accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA).
It’s the zoo’s responsibility to do everything they can to ensure the healthy repopulation of this species, and by helping to bring in new baby penguins into the world, Elmer and Lima are certainly doing their part to help.
“Once they have experience doing this and continue to do it well, they will be considered to foster future eggs,” Fox said.
But more than that, Elmer and Lima’s success as parents shows that even “non-traditional” families can do an amazing job at raising a newborn.
“Elmer and Lima’s success at fostering is one more story that our zoo can share to help people of all ages and backgrounds relate to animals.”
Great job, Elmer and Lima! We’re so glad this adorable baby penguin is doing so well thanks to your love and care.
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