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The death last weekend of the world’s most famous polar bear, Knut, has reposed 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 suggests 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 have contended 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 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, so maybe all this media will have a positive impact on raising people’s concerns for these delightful animals. I would love to know your point of view.

How One Little Polar Bear Captivated the World by Craig Hatkoff, Juliana Hatkoff, Isabella Hatkoff and Dr. Gerald R. Uhlichis a wonderful Picture Book about the life of Knut.

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. Kids and adults will fall in love with this adorable bear through the photo illustrations and simple, true story. I believe kids, especially animal lovers; from 5-11 will love this story.

I have a soft spot for Polar Bears, so while we are on the subject, I want to recommend a couple more great Picture Books.

Arctic Song by Miriam Moss and Illustrated by Adrienne Kennaway

This book takes you on a poetic journey of discovery of the Arctic and its inhabitants. In early spring a mother polar bear and her cubs emerge from their winter den. The cubs frolic and play in the snow but are captivated by a raven, which tells tales of the magic of whale song. Instead of following mum home the cubs set out in search of “whale song”. The caribou, walrus and arctic fox all take part in the search. This lyrical story of the arctic is beautifully illustrated with strong pictures of the various northern inhabitants.

Little Polar Bear Finds a Friend by Hans de Beer

The author has a wonderful Dutch name meaning bear! I hope that through this post you are starting to sense my passion for the natural world in its entire splendor. This book also contains many arctic animals for young children to encounter (maybe not as vividly as in a zoo, yet still meaningfully, I believe). The little Polar Bear, Lars, while searching for a playmate, gets caught in a trap and finds himself in a cargo plane full of arctic animals destined for a zoo. The great news is that Lars’ cage breaks open on landing and he is able to set free all the animals (you see why I like this one?). In so doing he finds the friend he has been searching for! I love the last illustration, which is four bear bottoms -2 large (Lars’ parents) and 2 small (Lars and his new friend).


This makes books 20-22 in the Read to Me Picture Book Challenge




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8 Responses to CUTE KNUT

  1. Patricia Tilton says:

    It truly was a sad week with announcement of the death of Knut. You did such wonderful tribute to Knut. I followed his death on TV this week. There are anumber of books on Knut, and children all over the world fell in love with him.

    Your passion for the natural world is evident and I really enjoyed and appreciated your discussion about raising wild animals in the zoo. With Knut, there weren’t many options. But, you raise many moral and ethical questions. Our grandson is an engineer and oversaw a project to redesign and build a new home for polar bears at the popular Columbus Zoo in Ohio. Although the bears that reside there would not make it in the wild, especially with their declining habitat, it does raise questions. Yes they have been saved, and yes the polar bears allow for an wonder-filled educational experience for kids. But, the research you pointed out about what constant exposure to humans, is daunting.

    I liked that you also balanced your message about Knut with other picture books about polar bears living in the wild. And, your own experience of living among wild animals in Africa. Would love to hear your stories/experiences. I believe animals should remain in the wild, but also know there are situations where rescue may be important. I appreciate the work of zoologist and activist Jack Hannah who works tirelessly in Africa to create more natural refuges for animals in the wild.

    Again, another thought-provoking post. Excellent topic!

  2. Joanna says:

    Pat, thank you for such a thoughtful response to this post. What a fascinating project your grandson undertook, as he must have had to do much zoological research as well as apply engineering techniques. Even as a young child I didn’t really enjoy zoos or circuses.. or even guinea pigs in cages … it is just a personal response. I know zoos around the world are rethinking their focus and aims. I also suspect some animals are much better suited to zoo environments and constrictions than others. the larger animals often fare much worse. I am sure that a zoo visit could also spark a lifelong passion for animals in some children. I would like to pursue the subject further and maybe do some more posts on some zoo conservationist projects. I shall also share some of my own experiences (either here or in a book ;))

  3. A very thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Joanna! The way you tied in voicing your concern over zoos and the “keeping” of wild animals with our continuing overview of picture books was excellent. I agree that some horrible things have happened to animals because of the way they have been treated in zoos (and don’t get me started on circuses!) but I also think that there are some good things happening in at least a few zoo/conservation parks around the world. Beyond the obvious opportunity for education of children and adults alike, with hopefully the realization triggered in the zoo’s visitors of the crucial importance of preserving habitat in the wild, and working to ensure more animals can survive in the wild, there are also zoos which, I think, do contribute to preserving species by their conservation and breeding efforts. I hope I am right in this, that their work is helping… Two that come to mind are The Gerald Durrell Wildlife Trust and the San Diego Zoo with its Institute for Conservation Research

    If you would like to see polar bears in the wild, a wonderful place to do so is Churchill, Manitoba, Canada (this link I’ve put through tinyurl because it was very long).

    P.S. I was delighted to read at the end of your reply to Patricia that a book might be in the offing, as well as more of these excellent posts! Go for it!

    • Joanna says:

      Yes, Beth, I was thinking of Gerry Durrell’s Wildlife Trust when I wrote my reply to Pat. I just checked out the San Diego link and it is a Safari Park, which means a whole lot more wonderful, natural freedom for the animals – looks great. How I would love to check out some polar bears in the wild. My wildlife experience has been mainly tropical and European up to now. Have you been to Churchill yourself? I suspect the Zoo’s reinvestment in projects of conservation and breeding in the field are very valuable.

      When I lived in Malawi, on the banks of the river just south of Lake Malawi, we had three hippos in the bottom of the garden. I still remember the names we gave them. I think there must be a story buried in there somewhere 😉

  4. Thanks, Joanna — I think my comment’s still waiting for approval, but I appreciate your response. I’ve never been to Churchill myself, although I understand that my grandparents went years ago, before there were the tundra buggies and other opportunities for tourists.

    Three hippos in the garden? There’s definitely a story there!

  5. S-J says:

    Have you read Life of Pi? Interesting reflections on animals and zoos.

  6. Pingback: BIG CATS : Miss Marple's Musings

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