And Silo and Roy looked so happy together.
The two male chinstrap penguins had found each other in the big city. They had remained faithful. They had even raised a child. But then, not too long ago, they lost their home. Silo's eye began to wander, and last spring he forsook his partner of six years at the Central Park Zoo and took up with a female from California named Scrappy. Of late, Roy has been seen alone, in a corner, staring at a wall.
This tale of betrayal, sexual identity and penguin lust set in Manhattan has reverberated around the world. It has "rocked the gay scene," as the popular blogger Andrew Sullivan, who is gay, wrote in the Sunday Times of London this week.
No one was more disappointed than Rob Gramzay, the senior penguin keeper at the zoo, who said simply in an interview on Friday, "They seemed to be a good pair together."
The end actually came 16 months ago. It happened shortly after Silo and Roy gained fame from an article in the New York Times detailing their relationship. Some saw the tale of two male birds raising a child as a parable for our time.
Yet things began to fall apart in May last year after the two were kicked out of their nest by two aggressive penguins. They drifted apart, Gramzay said, and early in the mating season this year Silo found Scrappy, an import from SeaWorld who had been lounging around the aquarium since 2002.
Still, Gramzay said that humans should not divine too much from the split. "People read so much into the gay thing, and the gay thing is necessarily a human constraint that's put on top of them."
That has not stopped many from doing just that.
At the Web site for Focus on the Family, an influential organization run by radio host James Dobson, who has called homosexuality a disorder and advocates converting gays, a commentator, Warren Throckmorten, wrote: "For those who have pointed to Roy and Silo as models for us all, these developments must be disappointing. Some gay activists might actually be angry."
Well, maybe not angry. As Roberta Sklar, a spokeswoman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, put it: "There's almost an obsession with questions such as, `Is sexual orientation a birthright or a choice?' And looking at the behavior of two penguins in captivity is not a way to answer that question."
`A lot ridiculous'
She said the furor over the penguins "is a little ridiculous. Or maybe a lot ridiculous."
Perhaps it is because penguins of all stripes have become hot political commodities of late. The surprise hit of the summer was March of the Penguins, in part because it was embraced by Christians and conservatives, who see in the film pro-family and Christian imagery.
And in February, following protests by gay rights groups, a German zoo abandoned plans to force homosexual penguins there to pair with females. The male penguins never did take a shine to the imported Swedish females.
But no one should be surprised at Silo and Roy parting ways, said Frans de Waal, who has studied the mutable sexuality of bonobo apes and is the director of the Living Links Center at Emory University in Atlanta.
"Exclusive homosexuality is not very common in nature," he said. And, anyway, he said, "bisexual" would be a better term for animals, adding, "They're sometimes described as gay animals, but they really aren't."