PET­TING ZOO

Love en­dures for Zoo At­lanta's gay flam­ing cou­ple

GA Voice - - Front Page - By PA­TRICK SAUN­DERS psaun­ders@the­gavoice.com

You wouldn’t im­me­di­ately no­tice any­thing dif­fer­ent about the 57 dif­fer­ent flamin­gos who call Zoo At­lanta home. They all have sim­i­lar col­or­ing and they par­tic­i­pate in sim­i­lar habits and rit­u­als. But 15 years ago, bird keep­ers wit­nessed some­thing a lit­tle un­usual about two of the flamin­gos. They ap­peared to have paired up, which isn’t that odd con­sid­er­ing the typ­i­cal mat­ing habits of the species.

No, what stood out was that the two were males.

Bird keep­ers es­ti­mate that the two, of­fi­cially known as 20 and 46 since the flamin­gos aren’t given stan­dard names, have been to­gether since the early 1990s but that the zoo didn’t start keep­ing track of it un­til 2001. That means the pair, who were both born in the mid-1980s, re­cently cel­e­brated their sil­ver an­niver­sary to­gether.

What stood out even more about them is what they did around that same time—started a fam­ily to­gether.

Same-sex at­trac­tion com­mon in an­i­mals

20 and 46 are like any other flamingo cou­ple at Zoo At­lanta. They’re to­gether con­stantly, fol­low­ing each other around, eat­ing to­gether, al­most ev­ery­thing. On one re­cent day, they re­ally al­most did ev­ery­thing ac­cord­ing to Zoo At­lanta bird keeper Mon­ica Halpin.

“We did see them yes­ter­day kind of do­ing the pre-cop­u­la­tion thing,” Halpin told Ge­or­gia Voice on a re­cent visit to the zoo. “We didn’t ac­tu­ally see them try and cop­u­late, but yeah they’ll do ev­ery­thing to­gether.”

Ex­perts give vary­ing num­bers when it comes to the preva­lence of same-sex at­trac­tion in an­i­mals. The Oslo Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum in Norway put on an ex­hi­bi­tion on the topic in 2006, say­ing that same-sex at­trac­tion had been ob­served among 1,500 species but that it had been well doc­u­mented in closer to 500.

“I just picked the three [pairs] that I thought showed the best po­ten­tial for be­ing par­ents and [the male pair] just hap­pened to be one of them. They sat re­ally tight on their egg so I gave them a chick and they raised it.” —Zoo At­lanta bird keeper Mon­ica Halpin

Zoo At­lanta’s Halpin says the be­hav­ior is much more com­mon in large so­cial flock species like pen­guins, al­ba­tross and, yes, flamin­gos.

And 20, 46 and other gay an­i­mals across the world like them are ac­tu­ally play­ing a role in the larger con­ver­sa­tion about LGBT rights. In the land­mark 2003 U.S. Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas, the Amer­i­can Psy­chi­atric As­so­ci­a­tion and other groups filed a “friend of the court” brief that cited Cana­dian bi­ol­o­gist Bruce Bagemihl’s book “Bi­o­log­i­cal Ex­u­ber­ance: An­i­mal Ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and Nat­u­ral Di­ver­sity.” This was the case that led to the strik­ing down of sodomy laws in 14 states (in­clud­ing Ge­or­gia), there­fore mak­ing same-sex sex­ual ac­tiv­ity le­gal in every U.S. state and ter­ri­tory. Bagemihl’s book was also cited in 2000 by LGBT rights groups op­posed to Bal­lot Mea­sure 9, a pro­posed Ore­gon statute that pro­hib­ited teach­ing about ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity or bi­sex­u­al­ity in pub­lic schools. The mea­sure failed.

And baby makes three

Things get a lit­tle dra­matic at Zoo At­lanta’s flamingo ex­hibit when it comes to par­ent­ing. Halpin says it’s never 100 per­cent clear who the bi­o­log­i­cal par­ents of each chick are be­cause you never ac­tu­ally see the fe­male lay an egg.

“It’s such a soap opera up there with so much con­stant swap­ping and fight­ing that you never know,” she ex­plains.

What they do know is that last year, 20 and 46 got in on the ac­tion, ei­ther steal­ing a nest or an egg with one sit­ting tight on it and the other de­fend­ing his mate and the egg from oth­ers. It soon be­came time for the bird keep­ers to pick the pairs that would raise the chicks. Halpin says sex­ual ori­enta- tion never came into the equa­tion.

“I just picked the three [pairs] that I thought showed the best po­ten­tial for be­ing par­ents and [the male pair] just hap­pened to be one of them,” she says. “They sat re­ally tight on their egg so I gave them a chick and they raised it.”

Num­ber 50, as their chick is known, is now one year old and as is usual when the species reach that age, he’s bro­ken off from his two dads to be on his own. Halpin is un­equiv­o­cal when asked how 20 and 46 did.

“They were the best par­ents we had last year,” she says.

And the cou­ple may have some like-minded friends in the flock. Just last week, the bird keep­ers started notic­ing a one-year-old and two-yearold male chick (not the chick that came from 20 and 46) spend­ing a lot of time to­gether, fol­low­ing each other around and even sit­ting on a nest.

“It’s re­ally rare to see chicks that age up there. They’re usu­ally about five or six be­fore they start breed­ing and these chicks are one and two,” Halpin says. “Then es­pe­cially to be up at the nest sight at all and hav­ing one sit­ting. They didn’t stay on the nest but I’m keep­ing an eye on them. They’re pretty cute.”

Zoo At­lanta flamin­gos 20 and 46 watch over their chick, 50. (Photo by Mon­ica Halpin)

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