There’s an arrestingly titled article in today’s Independent about Knut, the hand-reared polar bear cub in Berlin Zoo. It goes: Knut is a psychopath and will never mate, say experts. The article describes Knut’s antics:
On a wet day last week Knut stood alone in his enclosure playing to his gallery of adoring visitors like an accomplished Rada graduate. Somebody had thrown him a six-inch-long plastic toy. Knut rolled it around in his mouth, threw it into a pool and dived after it, snatched it up with his paw and then rose up on to his hind legs before quickly flipping the object back into his mouth again. He did this for half an hour and his audience roared with approval. It was more circus than zoo.
When Knut was taken away from his mother, to save him from being eaten by her, his rescuers claimed that they were doing it for Knut. Now, with furry toys on sale depicting Knut in the days when he actually looked like a furry toy, rather than the hulking brown monster he’s become (see photo), it’s increasingly evident that Knut wasn’t hand-reared for his own good, but for ours. From the moment of birth, the cub’s socio-ecological niche depended on us.
Animal activists complained about this, but their gripe is not with whether Knut should have been deprived of his mother and a ‘natural’ death, but with the zoo itself. And, in one sense, they’re absolutely right. Tony Paterson, the author of the article, makes a distinction between circus and zoo that seems altogether too fine for what actually happens. We all know that, in theory, zoos are the loci of scientific research and conservation. What we also know is that both circuses – those that remain – and zoos exist primarily to satisfy our natural curiosity about what animals are like – a curiosity that isn’t sated by National Geographic and Discovery Channel. We want to get up close and see them unedited; we want to smell the dung and see them see us: we want to relate.
It’s a shameful and tyrannical need in some ways, but it serves a human purpose. The truth is that all our animals, whether at home or in zoos, in farms or wildlife parks, even, arguably in reserves the size of the Serengeti, are there to meet our needs. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t love them, care for them, consider their needs; on the contrary, the more they’re involved with us on a daily basis, the greater our responsibility becomes. But it’s sentimentalism to say that we shouldn’t interfere.
Of course we’re responsible for Knut, but so would we have been responsible for his death. We can choose what to do with our power, and our responsibility, but we can’t pretend we don’t possess it. We can’t return to some prelapsarian world in which we’re all equal and what we think doesn’t matter, because we have already made the choice, or had the choice made for us. Loving animals can be the most rewarding, and the hardest, thing we do. Let’s not trivialise it by inventing some notion of nature, from which they can be ‘divorced’.