Gay penguins Harry and Pepper once lived happily together – until Linda came along

By People Staff
Updated July 17, 2009 07:42 PM
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It almost seems like a plotline out of Days of Our Lives. Definitely Jerry Springer. The backdrop is Penguin Island at the San Francisco Zoo and the drama unfolding is a love triangle between two male Magellanic penguins – Harry and Pepper – and a female member of the South American variety of the species named Linda. “It’s the soap opera that is Penguin Island,” the zoo’s curator of birds, Harrison Edell, tells PEOPLE Pets. And it has the San Francisco zoogoing community in a lighthearted gaggle.

For several years, Harry (above, left) and Pepper lived in the same burrow, swam together, dined on herring at the afternoon feed, and even shared a nest, incubating eggs like their male and female counterparts. And last year they raised a foster hatchling. The male pair displayed all the characteristics of a “typical” penguin couple, says Edell.

That was until earlier this year when Linda (above, right), their next-burrow neighbor, entered the picture. When she lost her longtime mate and was suddenly on the market, Linda managed to catch Harry’s eye. Then, trouble in paradise.

“Harry moved in with Linda,” Edell explains. “We saw aggression from both of them toward Pepper – Harry would chase him away when he tried to enter Linda’s burrow, which Linda shared with Harry.”

Magellanic penguins range in size from 2 to 3-ft. tall and 6 to 14 lbs., says Edell. Male couplings are rare in the penguin world but not unheard of, despite avian cynics who claim that it’s a lack of burrow space and availability of females that causes male birds to form partnerships. “We have 29 males and 21 females on Penguin Island,” Edell says of the colony. “If that were the case, we would have four male couplings and we have only one. And there’s plenty of burrow space. The issue of not having enough females doesn’t hold water.”

This past spring, Harry and Linda produced two hatchlings of their own. But after nesting season concluded, emotions triggered by the hormone rush of spring calmed down, Edell explains. By June, the trio reached a détente of sorts. During the day, Harry and Pepper hang together, swimming in the small outdoor pool surrounding the island. But at night, Harry returns to Linda’s burrow while Pepper retires alone. “They’re swimming together,” says Edell of the former couple. “They’re peaceful now and Linda seems to be tolerating Pepper. So far so good.”

The love triangle has drawn large crowds at the daily 2:30 p.m. feedings, which are open to the public. The expectation is that Pepper could pair up with one of the females coming of age this season, or he may choose to fly solo or find another male partner. “We don’t know if he would pair up with a male or female,” says Edell.

Stay tuned!