Tuesday, 27 December 2011

A monumental shame

The Friends of Tiergarten Berlin have organised a competition. They've invited sculptors to submit designs for a memorial to Knut, the world famous Polar Bear from Zoologischer Garten Berlin, who died after suffering a fit in March. Knut was the zoo's number one attraction since 2007, when he arrived as a tiny cub. I remember him shooting across the world's newswires at the time. I think I might have said "Ahhhh!" when I saw his picture. It was that kind of story. You wanted to hug him.

The question is, why exactly should a memorial be built to him at all? Are they going to build a memorial to every animal that dies? Will there be similar competitions launched when the next Ring Tailed Mongoose or Luzon Hornbill snuffs it? Of course not.

Knut gets a memorial because he was a worldwide celebrity, spawning book, films and even stamps devoted to his image. He was a celebrity because he was cute: the perfect "and finally" story for news programmes. Even better, he had adversity to overcome. After being rejected by his mother, various animal rights groups and zoologists suggested he should be allowed to die, as he would in the wild.

The resulting public outcry did lead to some good things: behind all the "save the cute bear" hysteria there was a wider discussion taking place, on global warming and the welfare of animals in captivity.

But when Thomas Ziolko, the chairman of the Friends of the Berlin Zoo, speaks of creating a memorial to Knut "to preserve the memory of this unique animal personality", you have to wonder what he's talking about. What personality?

Emotional bonds with an animal can be very real. Many of us have cried our eyes out at the loss of a pet who we felt had the emotions and idiosyncrasies of a true individual. But can Knut's fans really claim to have shared a similar relationship with Knut? After all, they didn't spend quality time with the bear. Watching him through the smeared glass of his enclosure, being fed or lounging on a rock, is hardly one-on-one contact. The only person who could possibly have claimed a relationship with Knut was his keeper. Even he had to back off when Knut got big. Why? Because Knut was a carnivorous bear.

I saw Knut in his enclosure last year, and I had a very different reaction to Herr Ziolko. I had taken my girlfriend to the zoo to propose. It was proving tough to find a good spot in the rather forbidding city, and I thought the animals might make for a more romantic setting.

Boy, was I wrong. One of the first things we saw was the bear enclosure, and immediately I tried to steer us away. The bears appeared, to my admittedly untrained eye, to be utterly insane. I couldn't have told you which one was Knut, but one bear in particular struck me. It was taking three steps forward, three steps back, over and over and over again. It was shaking its head too, as if dazed. It seemed to me like a prisoner driven to distraction by confinement. I found the sight unbelievably depressing.

Perhaps I was misguided. Possibly it was natural behaviour that I didn't understand. The point is, I can't claim to know anything about what was going on in that bear's head.

If a memorial must be built to Knut, don't let it be to commemorate a personality that, if it did exist, nobody but his keeper could have known. Use it once again as an opportunity for an urgent discussion on conservation, not a maudlin tribute to a fictional character.

If we want polar bears to have any future at all, we should treat his passing with the cold eye of those who said he should die as a cub, not sob with those who screamed to let him live. Knut would want it that way.

Or would he?