Posts Tagged With: polar bear

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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Knut: a life between bears and humans

Today, the polar bear who was raised by humans at the Berlin Zoo was found dead in his enclosure. Knut was rejected by his mother when he was born at the zoo in 2006. The orphan cub became a beloved and familiar feature of the zoo, and of animal-lovers the world over. Touching photographs of the somewhat ill-adjusted bear show him interacting with a young girl and her stuffed, plush version of his species through his enclosure window. Vanity Fair superimposed him onto an iceberg for the cover of their Green Issue in 2007 and, on the cover of a German edition, was called a “superstar.”

Knut on a German postage stamp declaring: "Natur weltweit bewahren" (Preserve nature worldwide). (Wikicommons)

Yet, reports from late last year say Knut was bullied by the other polar bears within his enclosure. He was apparently not so beloved by his own kind. Zookeepers say, despite successfully raising a healthy cub in captivity, he lacked the social skills necessary to build relationships with other polar bears.

The autopsy is to be performed this week. Zoo officials say Knut had no known illness. Visitors who witnessed his death report the bear seemed to be having a seizure and collapsed limply in the enclosure’s pool. The activist group Peta is now pointing a finger at the Berlin Zoo, saying they knew Knut was not adjusting to the three females in his enclosure. Adult polar bears, they claim, are solitary, and an adult male would never associate so closely with three females. Was Knut bullied to death by the other bears? Was he unable to establish himself as alpha? Was he incapable of breeding, as it seems may have been the intentions of the zoo? Was the stress of living halfway between the human and the animal world too much for him?

Interestingly, the zoo keeper most responsible for raising Knut, Thomas Doerflien, died of a heart attack in 2008. He had recently been told he could no longer enter Knut’s enclosure, for fear the growing bear was too dangerous. Some characterize Doerflien’s passing as dying of a broken heart. Has Knut now suffered a similar fate?

A photograph on NPR showed, shockingly, Knut floating dead in his enclosure’s pool. The photograph, the site noted, was taken by a zoo visitor, on a cellphone. Other sources report more than 600 zoo visitors witnessed the scene with children breaking down in tears unable to process the death of their furry friend.

I hope there will be more uplifting moments of remembrance for the beloved animal in coming days. Zoos around the world tackle with the challenges of losing familiar animals, and tomorrow I will explore some of the ways zoos help their visitors mourn animal deaths.

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