Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Killing Knut

Knut the polar bear, the cute little white ball of fluff with the appealing black nose rejected by his mother in Berlin zoo in 2006, has died very prematurely of a brain disease. Feted by the international media and quickly commodified by the zoo into everything from soft toys to fridge magnets and dvds, adoring crowds of thousands flocked to see him take his first steps in the intimacy of his enclosure, while article after article featured the close relationship forged with his keeper, who hand-reared him. Like so many anthropomorphised creatures in human zoos, Knut was turned into the essence of an manufactured life form - unnatural, cuddly as opposed to a killer, the epitome of a thousand children's Christmas tales.

Knut, 2006 -2011, r.i.p.
Yet of course the true story was much bleaker - Knut, furry and cute, was indeed still a potential killer and had to be separated from his keeper when he grew too large. The keeper was later found dead in his flat, cause unknown. Isolated in his man-made environment, Knut languished thousands of miles from his real habitat - though, thanks to human meddling by breeding several, successive generations of zoo-reared polar bears divorced from their real environment, it was a habitat that would have killed him had he been placed in it. Depressed, diseased and confined, wasn't it only a matter of time before this sad moment came to pass?

Knut's tale is far from unique. Zoos, sanitised into family adventure parks and lauded as preserving rare species, in truth are what they are: prisons for captive animals. Many zoos have come a long way from their origins - cages tend to be bigger and "safari parks" in rather unlikely locations such as Longleat  and Loch Lomond, deliberately cultivate the image of animals roaming free as People Carriers packed with holidaymakers trundle slowly through their enclosure.

Yet what does this do to the animals themselves - detached from what their Nature requires of them, urges them, and makes them need? There is little doubt of the intelligence and empathy inherent in many species of animals, yet we connive to do them the supposed kindness of caging them in climates and conditions far removed from their real homes.

I have only ever seen a polar bear once for real. It was an experience that has stayed with me all the 24 years since - for all the wrong reasons. It was in July 1987. I had just been to a graduate careers fayre in Edinburgh with some former classmates and, on a baking hot summer's day, we decided to stop at the zoo on the way home. And there she was - a huge, once magnificent creature, stuck in a direct suntrap on a single rock barely larger than her own body, positioned below the circular wall round which kids and adults alike stood, peering down, pointing at her as she baked on the rock, her white fur distinctly browned and yellowed and matted. As she swung her head ceaselessly from left to right and back again, sweet wrappers and drinks cans floated and bobbed on the dirty water surrounding her cramped perch as a zookeeper babbled on about how this apparently simulated the Arctic environment, a place she was doomed never to see.

Perhaps, ironically, there was some truth in his words. The Arctic is melting far faster than anticipated because of man-made global warming and for the first time in recorded history the once fabled North-west passage is now a reality in the summer months. Polar bears are changing their habits, having to swim ever further to find ever smaller morsels of food. In 2009, one starving bear swam two hundred miles from Greenland to Iceland, only to be shot dead on arrival. In Canada, as they move further south and by force change their diet, they are mixing with grizzlies to create a new, blond bear species - though that still does not stop the slaughter by bloodsports enthusiasts, like their helicopter hunting poster girl Sarah Palin.
The slaughter continues...

So the commodification of Knut has a double-edge to it: while some no doubt genuinely hope that it will help promote conservation work and protect endangered species (endangered by who, of course?), it turns the actual creatures in the zoos into saleable goods, marketable property, if not directly (other than to other zoos perhaps), then certainly as false images of what they are. And on that basis, many people are left unquestioning about our treatment of them, our denial of their individuality or any right to dignity and freedom. Just as, tens of thousands of miles away, we are also denying their right to a natural habitat and even their right to exist. We watch documentaries about their plight, then can go and coo at them in the zoo, be told conservation work is being done, and go home feeling ok.

In this context, the Berlin bear becomes just more tabloid fodder, another tragic soap tale set alongside the latest on Jordan's divorces and Kate Middleton's dress. His demise at such a young age is grist to the mill of pulp magazines, marking the all too early passing of this artificial creation of humanity. Poor Knut.

Let's hope some "intelligent" species never decides to conserve us - from ourselves, perhaps.

The Human Zoo...

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