Bride of Knut? A Lesson for Survival of Species
Death and drama in Nuremberg. Dag Encke, Director of the Nuremberg Zoo where cubs were recently born to polar mommas Vilma and Vera, was reported as recently as the 4th of January to have said that he would have let Berlin's famous polar bear, Knut, die rather than raise him with humans. Only three days later, the news broke: Vilma's babies are dead! And now, mother Vera roams and moans the loss of her cub, taken away to be "the next Knut", or perhaps "Mrs. Knut" as the media whirlwind has tagged the still nameless cub. Is this a tempest in a teapot? Or a metaphor for man's place in nature? Which is best: trusting the goodness of mother nature or intervening with the superior intellect of man?
The Original Bear Baby: Knut in Berlin
Knut-mania reigned at the Berlin Zoo for over a year. Eventually, cuddly Knut grew into a threat to his handler -- anthropomorphized cuteness competing with subconsciously invoked primal images of a deadly predator. A wild creature turned into a rollicking, croissant-eating clown who is now the subject of negotiations with Hollywood studios looking for opportunities to capitalize on his fame, and the debate over the Knut-rescue continues.
Leading the Knut naysayers: Dag Encke of the Nuremberg Zoo. When his turn came, Encke's strong statements made one thing clear: no polar bear babies would be raised by humans in the Nuremberg Zoo. Two polar bear mommies in Nuremberg, Vilma and Vera, would be left to raise their young undisturbed. It is the natural way. Encke substantiated his position with advances in animal management theory. The old-fashioned practice of rescuing zoo babies was necessitated due to over-management of the young families, frequent intrusions making zoo mothers nervous. Modern theory requires that the young mothers be left to themselves in their brooding areas; this helps the young mothers learn to raise their babies, leading to a lifelong contribution to captive breeding programs, and results in offspring that can continue to live among their kind.
The reverse logic was used to justify the removal of Vera's cub (or to cover-up for the fact that political intervention rather than scientific expertise now reigns). The excitement over the death of Vilma's cubs resulted in disturbances by media teams swarming the polar bear area in Nuremberg Zoo. Vera became nervous. Soon, she was seen roaming outside the brood cave, desperately searching for a safe place for her cub, according to zookeepers. Her behavior sealed her fate: zookeepers declared a clear and present danger to the final bear cub. Vera lost her baby.
A confession is due: I will be glad if little snowflake, or whatever her name will be, survives. I too indulge in the cute snapshots of the tiny white ball of yawning, suckling, or perfect sleeping. But this article aims not merely to beat Cute Overload in the next Webbies. Our hearts are torn by mommy Vera's loss. But the scientist in us seeks the truth.
One truth: humans have a natural tendency to imagine that animals think, live, experience the world like we humans do. The case of a Chinese man attempting to hug panda Gu-Gu at the Beijing Zoo exemplifies romanticizing Mother Nature even more extremely than Knut-mania.
Another truth: most creatures sharing this planet are pitted against or allied with each other in battle for survival. When a black bear abandons a single cub in order to preserve her strength in hopes of a larger litter the following season, it is not a carefully balanced ethical decision; it is simple instinct. When a black widow spider eats her mate, it is not because 'he didn't take out the trash, ... again'. It is a recipe for survival.
One conclusion: Humans are unique in our capability to engage in such complex thought as sustainability, to consider that the success of our species may have to be deliberately reigned in so that the ultimate success (survival) of the species, and our ecosystem, can be assured. But with this realization comes an admission. Capability for complex thought may cloud decisions and delay actions. How do we ensure that the science is sufficiently well established to make decisions otherwise contradictory to our survival instinct? How do we communicate so that the potential loss can be accepted due to the greater potential good? Should Nuremberg have risked public outrage in order to communicate expert Encke's conviction that non-intervention is a better strategy?
In the big picture, the case of Vilma and Vera is a tempest in a teapot. But it is also a metaphor. We must learn how to communicate, and how to make decisions which weigh risks and benefits--with scientific knowledge as a firm foundation for action. The survival of our species depends on it.