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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The final indignity
Posted by Jill | 7:36 PM
Those who are regular readers of this blog are well aware that I am a big, blubbery sucker for Teh Cute and Fuzzy, and like many people worldwide, was captivated by Knut, the little polar bear cub in the Berlin Zoo who was being hand-reared after being rejected by his mother.

I'm not sure why, in the aftermath of Knut's untimely death at the young age of four, this story haunts me the way it does. Maybe I'm just exhausted (which I am), but in an age when so many things seem so futile, Knut's story is starting to seem like just another adventure in futility.

It was bad enough when Knut's handler, zookeeper Thomas Doerflein had to break away from his young charge because beyond a certain point, a polar bear, even one who which one is as closely bonded as these two were, can cause some serious damage. But when Doerflein died suddenly shortly thereafter from a heart attack, it was the first sign that Knut's story was a star-crossed one as much as a star turn.

In the two years since then, there have been intermittent reports that Knut simply could not adjust to being a polar bear. Just like a human child star, he seemed to become addicted to fame, needing an audience 24 x 7. If we anthropomorphized this bear, it's because he seemed almost human at times. We ascribed a feeling of abandonment to him just as we would feel if abandoned by the only person who ever meant anything to us. Whether he actually felt this sense of abandonment we can only guess. His would-be beary romance with a female polar bear borrowed from the Munich zoo came to nothing, and when recently the zoo put him together with his mother and two other female bears, reports said he was being "bullied" by them. Too big and dangerous to be with humans, unable to fit in with his own kind, with his "Papi" inexplicably gone, it's easy to understand how Knut Agonistes resonates with all of us who have ever in our lives felt lonely or abandoned or simply that we did not fit in.

There seems something so cruel now about the videos of the adorable fluffball and his human companion that remain on YouTube in perpetuity, now that we know that Knut was a product of a certain amount of inbreeding, with another bear in his lineage dying in a very similar way. There was always the possibility that Knut and the other cub delivered by former circus bear Tosca were rejected because there was something wrong with them. Animals have a sense for this.

Back in the early 1980's, not long after Mr. Brilliant and I moved in together, a stray cat took up residence under the porch and a while later delivered a litter of kittens. We knew about the litter because we found one of them by the trash cans. After consulting with the local animal shelter, we laid in a supply of KMR formula, tiny nursing bottles, and cotton balls, and proceeded to care for this kitten whose eyes were open but couldn't have been more than a week old. We were told that as long as her eyes were open already, she would have gotten some immunity from her mother and that it was worth trying to save her. Mr. Brilliant trotted off to work with a cat carrier so he could feed the little thing every two hours. This did not endear him to his employers, so after a few weeks we had to enlist the help of the shelter to find the little kitten a new foster home.

The kitten, named China at the shelter, died at the age of four months from Feline Infectious Peritonitis. Apparently she didn't have that immunity after all. There was obviously a reason the momcat ejected her from the nest under the porch.

Preliminary reports from the autopsy of Knut shows what's being called "brain damage." Whether it's a birth defect, a result of the seizure he appears to have had before falling in the water and perhaps drowning, or something else, it's becoming clear that perhaps Tosca knew what she was doing. All of which begs the question: Was it really all worth it? Is the reason so many of us find ourselves getting blubbery at the thought of the short, largely unhappy life of Knut because what seemed like a lovely, sweet story of life triumphant and the bond between man and animal has had such an ugly, sad, and futile-seeming end? Did Thomas Doerflein essentially give his life for what turned out to be something so pointless other than to provide the Berlin zoo with a revenue stream?

It's hard to fault the zoo for wanting to save two cubs from an endangered species. It's hard to fault the zoo for realizing that this adorable, charismatic little bear and his handler meant needed revenue for maintenance and improvement of the zoo. We can second guess endlessly, but Monday morning quarterbacking is easy -- and pointless.

But this just seems wrong:
Knut, the Berlin polar bear who rose to fame after his mother abandoned him to be hand-reared by zookeepers, may be stuffed and exhibited in the city’s Natural History Museum after his premature death, the museum said.

Knut collapsed and died in his enclosure on March 19 at the age of four. Zoologischer Garten Berlin (ZOO) AG said yesterday in a statement on its website that an initial examination of his corpse showed brain abnormalities that may be the reason for his sudden demise. Many fans would welcome the chance to visit a stuffed Knut at the museum, bearkeeper Heiner Kloes told Radio Berlin Brandenburg today.

What captivated people about Knut wasn't just the fur or the black button eyes. It was the expression in those eyes, the light in them, the trademark "wave". It seems that even in death, Knut cannot escape exploitation.

It's enough to make one hope that the Rainbow Bridge story that's meant to comfort us when we lose a pet is really true.

Knut with zookeeper Thomas Doerflein


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Anonymous skywind said...
Nothing and no one lasts forever, but we don't have to define everything by how it ends. Knut brought joy and smiles to a lot of people - that should count for something. The sad ending doesn't erase all that.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
poor bear. i hope there is an afterlife where he can finally be happy.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
In your article you questioned whether or not this was worth it...Thomas Doerflein's investment into saving Knut only to have him die after 4 years. Ask any parent or pet owner if their time and energy was worth it, and I bet you would be challenged to find anyone who said it was not. Love gives, and it receives in return. It is so obvious that the two loved each other and had a special bond. The bigger questions revolve around the ethics of the zoo and the politics and red tape behind their decision to separate Thomas from Knut. Is it ethical to take a wild animal, cage it up,and force it to inbreed? Is it ethical to separate two beings from one another that truly love one another and are there to care for one another? Thomas dedicated two year to saving Knut's life and raising him. Knut obviously gave much joy and love back in return.

Perhaps we need not ask whether or not it was "worth it" to save Knut, but was it ethical to put so much stress on both Knut and Thomas Doerflein? It is not uncommon for dogs to die after their owners die, or for spouses to die within a year or two of one another. When parents lose their children, they often lose their reason to live.

I believe Knut and Thomas Doerflein are reunited in the afterlife in a place and realm where politics and red tape cannot separate their eternal bond. Shame on zoos for inbreeding. Shame on zoos for separating Thomas and Knut. Shame on us for capturing wild animals and sticking them in zoos in the first place. Shame on us for not recognizing how unique, loving, and intelligent animals are in the first place.