Posts Tagged With: Berlin Zoo

Great snake escape: imagining the Bronx Zoo’s cobra

I have never like the World of Reptiles. Compared to the brighter world of animals outside, it was always too dark, cold, and creepy. As a kid, its corners seemed to harbor imaginary slithery critters waiting to pounce. It didn’t help that my older brother stood behind me, tickling my arm, and screaming, “Snake!”

The Bronx Zoo's World of Reptiles is temporarily closed to root out an escaped cobra. (Wikicommons)

So when I heard an Egyptian cobra had escaped its enclosure in the Bronx Zoo’s reptile house, chills shot up my spine despite the nearly two thousand miles between us. The Egyptian cobra’s moment of escape was apparently unobserved. Zookeepers noticed her gone on Friday, secured the building, and are now trying to lure her out of hiding assuming when she is hungry and thirsty, she will emerge.

The Bronx Zoo is deftly trying to ward off panic. Their website announces only that the World of Reptiles is temporarily closed. They are “confident,” says zoo director Jim Breheny, the snake did not get out of the building. “Right now, it’s the snake’s game,” he states, telling us not to expect daily updates.

Damer's depiction of Cleopatra's death with a cobra wrapped around her wrist at the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, London. (Wikicommons)

Egyptian cobras are known for killing Cleopatra and inspiring fear in the otherwise heroic Indiana Jones. My childhood visions of escapee snakes seems to be shared by writer J.K. Rowling, though her scene is not one of silent spine-tingling creepiness. Rather, her title character Harry Potter, leans on a bar peering into a glass-fronted enclosure listening to a snake’s (a boa constrictor in Rowling’s book, but a python in the film) desire for freedom. Unwittingly, Harry frees the reptile that slithers off lisping, “Thank you.”

In the non-magical world, we must communicate with snakes through Twitter. Because of course, when a cobra escapes the zoo, its first act of freedom is to acquire an iPhone and join the social media sphere. The clever creator of @BronxZoosCobra reported the snake’s adventures in New York City, from trying to catch a cab to cozying up inside an apartment for the night. She thanked the animals from Madagascar (for inspiration) and said she supported the revolution in her native Egypt. “Obviously,” she wrote wryly, “I’m a big fan of freedom!”

When I first discovered the cobra’s Twitter feed, she had just announced hilariously: “Leaving Wall Street. These guys make my skin crawl.” I went out to dinner and, when I came home, her following had nearly doubled from 8700 to 16,290. This morning it was nearly 20,000. Shortly after 9 am, Twitter suspended the account. Now, all you see when you click on @BronxZoosCobra is: “This user does not exist.” (An archive of cobra tweets is preserved in the NY Times City Room.) [UPDATE: @BronxZoosCobra is back online as of this afternoon and has 87,500 followers.]

Well, of course she doesn’t exist…not as a feasible Twitter-user, anyway. When the inevitable children’s book on the event is pitched, will publishers reject it because the cobra did not herself tell the story? Is Twitter making a stand against anthropomorphism? Or are animals (and the humans who would put words in their mouths) simply not welcome on the site whose icon, ironically, is an animal?

Fears of the repercussions of the venomous cobra’s escape can be read in the deletion of @BronxZoosCobra and in the Bronx Zoo’s silence (they have not tweeted in 19 hours). If the reptile is indeed slithering through the streets of New York City, humorous tweets become fodder for panic. If the zoo finds the animal dead (or must kill it in the process of recapture) the incident becomes another rallying point for the anti-zoo crowd who have already railed against Knut’s recent death at the Berlin Zoo.

And what if they never find it?

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Remembering zoo pals

One day after Knut’s untimely death, visitors to the Berlin Zoo flocked to his now-empty enclosure to pay their condolences, leaving behind candles, flowers, plush bears, and hand-written notes. These minature memorials remind us that zoo visitors enjoy emotional connections to the animals on display.

When the Portland Zoo lost its beloved Asian elephant, Pet, they remembered her with Thai lanterns in a tradition from the elephant’s native land. The zoo kept many of the gifts left by visitors at Pet’s enclosure in the days after her death. A memorial page permanently displays a keeper’s memories and dozens of visitor “memories and condolences.”

The St. Louis Zoo lost a celebrity gorilla known as Phil in 1958. Upon his death, the zoo’s director, George Vierheller commented, “He was one of my great pals” (zoo press release). Now, a statue representing Phil stands on zoo grounds as remembrance. Another zoo icon, Guy the Gorilla, lived thirty years before dying of a heart attack at his home, the London Zoo, in 1978. His body was stuffed and on display at the London Museum of Natural History for several years. The London Zoo now displays a bronze statue of Guy on its grounds.

A bronze statue now helps visitors to the London Zoo remember their beloved Guy the Gorilla. (Wikicommons)

The Berlin Zoo has a memorial book on site, and another online, where visitors can permanently record their memories of Knut and leave parting words for the polar bear. The online memorial book already has over two thousand entries, in several languages. The zoo has also set up a memorial fund to help protect polar bear habitats.

Ceremonies and statues invite visitors to mourn publicly, while memorial books allow for private contemplation. Should zoo animals be so remembered? Some say no. At the Bronx Zoo, an unmarked forested area holds the buried bodies of several large, former residents, including an elephant named Tuss who died in 2002. In a New York Times interview, Dr. Robert Cook, then chief veterinarian at the zoo, stated that the burial ground is not something he ever considered opening to the public. “It’s more for their bodies to go back into nature,” he explained. “Everyone’s view of life and death is different. My memories are still when I close my eyes I see Tuss looking at me, and standing in front of that site wouldn’t enrich that.”

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Knut is a cultural animal

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.

Knut with the keeper Thomas Dorflein who raised the cub and was later denied contact. (Wikicommons)

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.

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