'March of the Penguins' and Homosexuality

Marriage advocate and conservative columnist Maggie Gallagher praised the recent surprise hit documentary March of the Penguins for extolling the values of love and devotion. But instances of homosexuality in the penguin world might add an unwanted twist to her analogy.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From politics now to penguins. The documentary about the birds "March of the Penguins" is the surprise movie hit of the summer, perhaps because it's not just about the penguins. OK. Well, technically it is about the penguins, but when you see them fight for survival and to protect their young and even experience the cold, you realize penguins are kind of like us on our better days, or maybe not. NPR's Mike Pesca now waddles up to the microphone to throw cold water on this whole `penguins as people' idea.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

Beautifully shot, expertly edited, actually re-edited to appeal to an American audience, "March of the Penguins" has a lot going for it, not the least of which is the casting of the narrator. Morgan Freeman brings humanity to the penguins, and that is the problem.

(Soundbite from "March of the Penguins"; penguin)

Mr. MORGAN FREEMAN (Narrator): Like most love stories, it begins with an act of utter foolishness.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

PESCA: Love stories? Reading as penguin behavior of survival and caring for offspring as love is just so human of us, and it seems to be what's grabbing audiences. It's what grabbed columnist Maggie Gallagher.

Ms. MAGGIE GALLAGHER (Columnist): What is so gripping about the movie is the immense sacrifices these penguins make for no good reason in the world to do this thing called, you know, making a baby, getting together, finding a mate, making a baby. And I think it taps a nerve because we, too, don't really understand the deep roots of our own drives.

PESCA: Gallagher, as the president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, is one of the most widely quoted opponents of gay marriage. She testified before Congress. She's given hundreds of interviews. She's been paid by the Department of Health and Human Services to author pro-marriage materials. What Gallagher drew from the movie was, to quote her column this week, "It is hard not to see the theological overtones in the movie. Beauty, goodness, love and devotion are all part of nature built into the DNA of the universe." But here's the thing. At zoos throughout the world, they've noticed something about their penguins that might not fit into Maggie Gallagher's idea of theology. John Roden is the animal curator of New York's Central Park Zoo. He says this about his penguins.

Mr. JOHN RODEN (Animal Curator, New York Central Park Zoo): We do have individuals that form bonds with members of the same sex.

PESCA: They're gay. They're gay penguins. Well, there I go being all human again. They're exactly what Roden says: two male penguins who've paired off, engaged in sexual behavior and, in the case of Roy and Silo in Central Park, raise a chick. John Roden says the zoo's two male fathers are up to the task.

Mr. RODEN: They turn out to be--when given the opportunity, they're excellent parents. So that sort of thing, I would say that they're--you know, if we're talking about genetics, you know, there's a genetic component for that, I would definitely say.

PESCA: Maggie Gallagher says her argument doesn't have anything to do with penguin reality but with the reasons why humans find penguins compelling.

Ms. GALLAGHER: This is not because objectively penguins are an accurate symbol of the state of sexual and parenting relations in America but because through art these penguins became--they were made a symbol that people responded to.

PESCA: Both Gallagher and Roden acknowledge that our tendency to anthropomorphize animals is a natural phenomenon. You might say as natural as homosexual penguins, but animal behavior might not be the best guide for human morality. We admire the loving penguins, but let's remember, fluffy bunny rabbits sometimes eat their young, and "My Dinner with Flopsy" probably won't be packing them into the local cineplex anytime soon. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. There's more ahead on DAY TO DAY.

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