I woke up this morning hoping the media would begin remembering Knut for what he was. He was a bear, but he was a cultural bear — a zoo animal people equated more with their plush versions than with his wild cousins.
But a tweet from Born Free Foundation censured the Berlin Zoo for keeping the bear in captivity. Their official statement led me to an article in the German newspaper, Spiegel, from March 2008. In it, a zookeeper makes two claims. First, that the zoo was frustrated with Knut’s inability to behave like a bear. “Knut must go,” he says without giving a clear indication of just where such an unique polar bear might be taken. The zoo had banned human contact hoping the bear would somehow, magically or innately, become more bear-like.
Second, the zookeeper claims that Knut did not know he was a polar bear. He despised Knut’s need for an audience, a requirement the bear expressed by howling when no one stood in front of his enclosure. “That has to change,” the keeper insisted.
The ideal vision this keeper, and the wildlife organizations denouncing the zoo, hold of a polar bear does not apply to all polar bears. While Born Free Foundation has a point about how a migrating species like polar bears should, perhaps, not be kept in zoos, Knut was born in captivity and had occupied a place halfway between animal and human realms his entire life. In fact, it seems it is the lack of contact with humans that killed him.
Why the zoo would withdraw such contact is confusing. Zoos are cultural institutions that display animals. Insisting a bear raised by humans should behave like a “wild” bear is misguided. Taking away the only affection Knut knew — that of humans — even when the bear was visibly distressed denies the very relationship that saved the cub’s life.
I know several animal studies colleagues who might insist this analogy does not work, but imagine taking your four-year-old house-raised dog and denying him all human contact. While a dog is not a polar bear and a pet is not a wild animal, neither is a zoo animal a wild animal. The Berlin Zoo’s retraction of human contact seems a denial of the relationships people — visitors and zookeepers — build with animals in these settings. We must not expect zoo animals to be wild or, for that matter, to be as tame as pets. Rather, we must see them for what they are. We must not insert our human hands only to withdraw them, expecting an animal to figure out some sort of innate “wildness” he knows nothing of.