2011 Hero: Buddy and Pedro
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2011 Hero: Buddy and Pedro

Nominated for: tickling our funny bones and, yes, our hearts.

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains—the very best and very worst people, places, things, and ideas that have had an influence on the city over the past twelve months. From December 12–23, the candidates for Mightiest and Meanest—and new this year, a reader’s write-in option! From December 26–29 you’ll be able to vote for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year, and we’ll reveal the results December 30.

Once upon a time, in a little zoo in Toronto, there lived two endangered African penguins named Buddy and Pedro. Buddy and Pedro liked each other a whole lot and always had; even in their previous zoo home in Toledo, Ohio, they were observed engaging in the kind of extra-friendly behaviour typically reserved for male-female penguin pairs. In short, Buddy and Pedro were same-sex partners—until their big, bad keepers at the Toronto Zoo declared that their union must end. “Male African penguins need to be with female African penguins,” said zoo staff, throwing unsuspecting lady penguins Buddy and Pedro’s way. The threat of species extinction, said the zookeepers, was greater than the sanctity of Buddy and Pedro’s companionship.

Before long, Buddy and Pedro’s romantic predicament was making headlines from Argentina (where they would be called “Buddy y Pedro, los pingüinos gay”) to New York City, becoming the stuff of Gawker media essays and American talk show comedians’ “Brokeback Iceberg” jokes. A handful of groups protesting Buddy and Pedro’s separation cropped up on Facebook and anthropomorphizing Twitter accounts were created in earnest. When the Toronto Zoo’s curator of invertebrates and birds announced that the separation would be temporary, a sigh of relief was heaved across the land.

There’s no clear moral to the fable of Buddy and Pedro, whose media life peaked during a roughly 10-day period in November. What can be said with certainty is that the plight of the pint-sized tuxedo-wearers hit a nerve. Internationally, the tale carried a news-of-the-weird appeal that lent itself easily to retweets and wall posts. Locally, the quirk was weighted by context. In Toronto, 2011 was, after all, a bad year for the city’s zoo and the city’s gays, both reflecting key elements of Buddy and Pedro’s story. This was the year that would mark the euthanization of the lioness dubbed “the pride of the Toronto Zoo” and a shell-shocked mother polar bear’s attempt to eat her newborn cubs. It was also the year of homophobic slushie attacks and Catholic high school GSA bans.

Buddy and Pedro may not have addressed these sore spots directly, but they gave people something close to root for—passion without politics and drama without violence. While they’ve since followed through with zoo-enforced hetero mating rituals (sigh), they are helping to repopulate their species (yay!). What we’ll remember them for is how, in 2011, they gave the city a feel-good partnership to share with the world, an inoffensive jab at anti-gay sentiment that provoked smiles in the process. If that isn’t downright heroic in a year begging for boosted morale, maybe nothing is.