I have a soft spot for polar bears and was saddened by the death two winters ago of the world’s most famous polar bear, Knut. His death posed once again the ethical quandary of should man keep and raise animals in zoos. Wild Polar Bears can live to around 30 years old, but Knut died at the age of four. His post mortem suggested brain damage. Knut was born in 2006 in Berlin Zoo. He was raised by humans, one keeper in particular, with whom he bonded strongly. Animal rights activists continue to contend that he should have been put down when his mother rejected him rather than subject him to the unnatural and often numbingly boring existence of a large animal in a zoo. They suggest that the impact of excessive exposure to humans through being reared by hand and huge crowds would have inevitably provoked behavioral problems. One can argue that once born, the zoo had an obligation to aid in Knut’s survival, but the real issue is the zoo’s artificial environment and what that imposes on the animals. Are such animals being exhibited purely for profit and entertainment or do zoos provide a place of unique educational value and possibilities for preserving species, or could time effort and money be better spent in protecting animals and their habitats in the wild? It is estimated that profits increased by around 5 million Euros for Berlin Zoo since Knut’s birth. It should be noted, though, that much of the profit is returned to conservation projects in the field.
Having lived among wild animals in Africa, I probably have an inevitable bias towards protecting and maintaining them in their natural habitat. Animals raised in captivity are very rarely successfully released into the wild. With many/most species this is impossible. Is there a place for zoos in the education of our children? Possibly, and maybe more so for their advocacy role for animals in the wild. The long term forecast for Polar Bears is not good. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) estimates that there are between 20,000-25,000 polar bears in the world, and they are on the Red List as a threatened species.
Written by Craig Hatkoff, Juliana Hatkoff, Isabella Hatkoff & Dr. Gerald R. Uhlich
Published by Scholastic Press, November 1s, 2007
Ages: 4 – 11
Non-fiction, readily available
Themes: polar bears, zoos, endangered species, conservation
Synopsis: Knut’s mum was a rescued East German circus bear and when Knut was born he was around the size of a snowball. After his mother’s rejection, Knut would have most definitely died were it not for great veterinary care and then the zookeeper, Thomas Dorflein, who did some round the clock surrogate parenting for many months. Thomas fed him with a bottle like a human baby and taught him essentials like swimming.
Why I like this book: While I have already mentioned my ethical concerns about some zoos, I know that kids and adults will fall in love with this adorable bear through the enchanting photo illustrations and the true story. Knut is about as cute as they come and I think it offers a beautiful introduction to this species and the opportunity to talk, especially with older elementary children, about: animal conservation, the role of zoos, the place of animals in circuses etc
www.knut.net offers videos, links and more information about Knut.
Polar bear facts and videos from National Geographic Kids.