BERLIN — To the untrained eye, Skipper and Ping look like a typical king penguin couple.
Standing side by side at the Berlin Zoo with their flippers touching, they take turns carefully nestling an egg between their feet in the hope that it will eventually hatch the chick they have both long sought.
Except these two 10-year-olds are both male — and the latest in a long succession of same-sex penguins that have coupled up to adopt an egg.
At zoos in London, Australia and New York, male and female penguins have for years entered same-sex relationships to incubate eggs into chicks, delighting zookeepers and some visitors while stirring anger and revulsion in others.
Berlin has become the latest city to host a pair of “gay” penguins after Skipper and Ping showed an attraction to each other and a desire to become parents. Both unsuccessfully tried to hatch a stone for some time. Then zookeepers allowed them to adopt an abandoned egg.
“They look beautiful together,” said Youssef Rashed, a 23-year-old originally from Syria who was watching them from a visitor platform on Tuesday. Rashed, who is gay, came to Germany four years ago and found a haven.
“I feel the same way they feel,” he said, gazing at Skipper and Ping.
Germany has one of the world’s highest acceptance rates for homosexuality, and it legalized same-sex marriage and granted full adoption rights in 2017. The German far right, however, has been accused of stirring homophobia in recent years.
German nursery-school teacher Hannelore Bauer said she first heard about the same-sex penguin couple on TV.
“An animal follows its instincts and its feelings — just like humans, too,” Bauer said.
While Berlin Zoo officials said their penguin couple had so far inspired only positive reactions from visitors, similar instances — and even literature about it — have in recent years sparked fierce backlashes, governmental bans and religious protests around the world.
The forcefulness of that backlash has become a way to measure “where we are at any one location in terms of the acceptance of gay rights,” said psychiatrist Justin Richardson, co-author of a children’s book that tells the true story of same-sex penguins adopting an egg at New York’s Central Park Zoo in 2000.
The two chinstrap penguins — Silo and Roy — were able to successfully hatch their adopted baby penguin, Tango. Five years later, Richardson and Peter Parnell immortalized the story in “And Tango Makes Three,” which was illustrated by Henry Cole.
The book was written after the authors heard from parents and teachers looking for a child-friendly way to explain homosexuality.
It soon drew the attention and ire of conservative groups worldwide, which were offended at the content and the fact it was targeted toward children.
In the United States, some parents rallied alongside Christian groups to have the book banned from libraries. For years, it was the publication with the most restrictions or outright bans in the United States, according to the American Library Association.
In Singapore, the government banned the book from the National Library in 2014 but changed course after a public outcry. Copies were instead transferred to the adult section. Last year, it was among literature banned from Hong Kong’s public libraries. And this year, protests erupted in Birmingham, England, over its inclusion in a school program.
“There have been so many challenges to the book around the world — it is sometimes hard to keep up with it,” Richardson said in a telephone interview.
With their charming waddle and tendency to remain in monogamous relationships, penguins appear to have resonated with both supporters and opponents of gay rights unlike any other of the more than 450 animal species that have been observed to show homosexual behavior.
Richardson said the backlash to his work is because this behavior among penguins reaffirms that homosexuality is indeed natural and not, as some opponents argue, an unnatural choice.
“Nobody thinks that penguins are particularly smart,” he said. “And so, in a way, it does serve to undercut certain biases.”
Biologists have been more cautious about drawing links between homosexual behavior of animals and humans, saying that occurrences of same-sex coupling or mating rituals are rare in the animal world and that there is not enough data to say whether members of certain species, including penguins, can be gay. Most likely, animals sometimes called gay in public discourse are, in fact, bisexual, researchers say.
Opponents of LGBT rights have said that animals are being used for propaganda, a notion that Richardson said has gained momentum among conservatives in nations where support for LGBT rights is on the rise.
Singapore’s government, for instance, tried to ban “And Tango Makes Three” as public visibility of LGBT groups grew. In Australia, a same-sex penguin couple that adopted an egg stirred tensions in 2018 — one year after the country voted to legalize same-sex marriage following a divisive public debate.
Meanwhile in Poland, the country’s first openly gay mayor, Robert Biedron, faced right-wing condemnations for actively promoting the book in 2009, as the country’s LGBT community was becoming more vocal.
Approval for LGBT rights has generally increased in the country since, but opposition — supported by the Catholic Church — has recently intensified again. Encouraged by the ruling populist party, some towns and provinces in Poland have declared themselves free of “LGBT ideology.”
In an email on Tuesday, Biedron’s partner, Krzysztof Smiszek, said that in 2009, right-wing opposition to the same-sex penguin book was mostly ridiculed in the media.
“The situation today is rather different,” Smiszek wrote. Now, right-wing media outlets and politicians are trying to use LGBT issues “to divide the society and to stimulate hate.”
Whereas the story of same-sex penguin couples adopting an egg may have foreshadowed a looming culture war in Poland, the same story appears to resonate far differently in neighboring Germany.
“They’re good parents,” said Berlin zookeeper Nico Heydemann, 23, referring to Skipper and Ping, who hadn’t moved an inch in an hour. In about a month, the two could have their first baby penguin if everything goes according to plan.
Zookeeper Anja Seiferth said she hopes Skipper and Ping will remain a couple for the rest of their lives — perhaps for 15 more years.
If that happens, the two would outlast the relationship of the far more publicly scrutinized Central Park Zoo penguin couple. Silo eventually left Roy for a female penguin named Scrappy.