Meet Elmer and Lima, a Same-Sex Penguin Couple Fostering a Chick at a Syracuse Zoo

The two male birds are ‘exemplary’ parents, says the zoo’s director

Closeup of a Humboldt penguin chick
This is the first chick fostered by same-sex penguin parents at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, New York. Rosamond Gifford Zoo

Two male Humboldt penguins—Elmer and Lima—became the first same-sex couple to foster a chick at Syracuse’s Rosamond Gifford Zoo, per a statement. The chick hatched on New Year’s Day.   

Rosamond Gifford Zoo has used foster parents in the past because some breeding pairs have a history of accidentally breaking their fertilized eggs. Keepers swap in a fake egg and give the real one to fosters to give it a better chance of hatching. 

Elmer and Lima paired up for the breeding season, built a nest together and defended their territory, so the zoo gave them a dummy egg to test their fostering abilities.  

“Some pairs, when given a dummy egg, will sit on the nest but leave the egg to the side and not incubate it correctly, or they’ll fight for who is going to sit on it when,” Ted Fox, Rosamond Gifford Zoo’s director said in a statement. “That’s how we evaluate who will be good foster parents,” 

Elmer and Lima excelled in every aspect of egg care, per the zoo, so in late December, staff gave the pair a real egg. The foster parents took turns incubating it until it hatched. Since then, they’ve been keeping the chick warm and feeding it. It weighed eight ounces at its first health check in at five days old.

Elmer (left) and Lima (right)
Pictured: Elmer (left) and Lima (right) Rosamond Gifford Zoo viz CNYCentral

“They have been exemplary parents,” Ted Fox, Rosamond Gifford Zoo’s director, tells CNYCentral. “The chick is doing really well, growing very, very well. They’re doing exactly what two penguins should do when they’re taking care of a baby, and we’re really excited about that.” 

Humboldt penguins are native to the coasts of Peru and Chile. With a population of approximately 23,800, the species is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. The wild Humboldt penguin population digs nests in guano, or dried seabird poop, which is a prized fertilizer, per the Saint Louis Zoo. In the 19th century, humans harvested 200 million tons of guano in Peru, leaving the penguins without nesting areas. Now, guano harvesting is regulated, but the penguins face other threats, such as entanglement in fishing nets, climate change, overfishing and El Niño-related weather events. 

The Rosamond Gifford Zoo joined the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP) for Humboldt penguins in 2005, per its statement. The AZA SSP is a cooperative program to sustain genetically diverse and healthy populations of certain species within participating institutions. The Syracuse zoo started with 18 penguins from other AZA zoos and aquariums. Since then, the zoo has hatched more than 55 Humboldt penguin chicks.

Other zoos have seen success with same-sex penguin parents. Z and Vielpunkt, two male Humboldt penguins at Bremerhaven Zoo in Germany, raised an chick together in 2009 that a heterosexual pair had thrown out of their nest, writes Andrew Mach for The Local. Electra and Viola, female Gentoo penguins at the Oceanogràfic València aquarium in Spain, also hatched an egg in 2020, per CBS News’ Caitlin O’Kane. 

Fox says same-sex penguin pairs show that often non-traditional families can do a wonderful job rearing children, per the zoo’s statement. The Humboldt penguin pair will be considered for future foster eggs if they continue to do well. 

“Elmer and Lima’s success at fostering is one more story that our zoo can share to help people of all ages and backgrounds relate to animals,” Fox says.