Last year, as I was reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals, the author described Knut, the first polar bear to be born in the Berlin Zoo in thirty years. He had the opportunity to visit Knut, while in Germany, and had a first hand glimpse into the massive popularity of the animal: there were “Knut commemorative plates, Knut pajamas, Knut figurines, and probably, although I haven’t verified this, Knut panties… Another zoo animal, the panda Yan Yan, was actually killed by Knut’s popularity. Zookepers speculate that the thirty thousand people crowding into the zoo to see Knut overwhelmed Yan Yan –either overexcited her or depressed her to death (it wasn’t clear to me). And speaking of death, when an animal rights group raised the argument –only hypothetically, they later claimed– that it would be better to euthanize an animal than raise it in such conditions, schoolchildren took to the streets chanting “Knut must live.”
On that note, it’s easy to forget that zoos are a business and animals are their commodities. Knut’s premature death last sunday, allegedly due to brain problems, should remind us about so many issues surrounding animal rights and animal welfare. Foer used Knut’s celebrity to help readers understand about speciesim or “the species barrier”: “If you go to see Knut and get hungry, just a few feet from his enclosure is a stand selling “Wurst de Knut”, made from the flesh of factory-farmed pigs, which are at least as intelligent and deserving of our regard as Knut. This is the species barrier”.
A recent BBC News article explains:
“profit became a big part of Knut’s short life. In 2007 alone Berlin Zoo made an estimated five million euros through increased ticket and merchandising sales. Hundreds of fluffy white toys were sold every day across the city, newspapers offered Knut figurines for 148 Euros and in 2008 a movie, Knut and His Friends, opened in cinemas across Germany. Knut’s life was about celebrity rather than natural history, says Ian Redmond, a consultant to the Born Free Foundation’s polar bear project in Canada. “It does seem to highlight the dichotomy of people who love this one polar bear in particular and those who care about polar bears right across the species.”
From a vegan perspective, I’ve come to understand just how misleading zoos really are: they are “promoted as educational, research, and preservation centers where children and adults can become enlightened about exotic animals and endangered species. A more accurate perspective is that they are pitiful prisons where inmates serve life sentences with no chance of parole”. (Joanne Stepaniak, The Vegan Sourcebook, page 85). Furthermore, “although many large modern zoos attempt to simulate natural habitats, the result is more appealing to audiences than to the animals… Zoos do not enable animals to hunt, mate, socialize, and live as they were intended to; hence, they do little to educate people about their normal behavior.
I was both surprised and disturbed with the televised images of the Knut’s death. However, I can see the big picture now and realize that, despite his dramatic background (Foer noted the fact that “he was rejected by his mother, the twenty-year-old Tosca, a retired German circus bear, and his twin brother died four days later” and his keeper’s devotion to his care: “[Thomas] Dörflein bottle-fed Knut every two hours, strummed Elvis’s “Devil in Disguise” on his guitar at Knut’s bedtime, and was covered in cuts and bruises from all the roughhousing”), this poor animal’s life and death serves as an example of human’s misguided and clouded perception of what animal should be: part of a spectacle, a source of income and object of marketing, or a living, breathing, sentient being that deserved better than what he got during his short 4-year-old life .