Born Free USA Blog
by Will Travers,
Chief Executive Officer
What can you say about a big-hearted bloke who has rescued dolphins, tigers, elephants and more and whose parents once helped a lion cub from a department store by caring for him in their backyard and engineering his rightful return to Africa? You can safely say that he's got great animal instincts! In 1984, Will Travers joined his parents — "Born Free" film stars Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers — to form what became The Born Free Foundation. With knowledge, passion and compassion dripping from his every word, Will's blogs are sure to make you embrace our crusade to Keep Wildlife in the Wild ®.
We are saddened to hear of the death of Knut, a young male polar bear being kept captive in Germany. His short life was a series of tragedies from start to miserable finish.
Knut was born in December 2006 at Berlin Zoo and, after apparently being abandoned by his mother, was taken for hand-rearing by zoo staff. Knut found himself at the center of a publicity storm after animal groups in Germany apparently used Knut’s birth to highlight the fact that animals born at other zoos in Germany had been euthanized with impunity. With heavy irony, those groups called for Knut to be euthanized, too. These misjudged comments led to an outcry that was picked up and amplified around the world in the media, so that the undeniably photogenic cub became an overnight sensation.
The Born Free Foundation, Born Free USA’s companion organization in England for which I also am the chief executive officer, called for the establishment of a Polar Bear Rescue Center in Northern Europe where bears like Knut (who could not be returned to the wild) could spend their lives in as natural an environment as possible. Our recommendation was rejected.
Daily public shows were staged at the zoo, with Knut playing and interacting with his keeper, Thomas Dörflein. But of course the cute factor didn’t last long: Reports of behavioral problems began to emerge. The snow-white fluff-ball of a cub became a grubby and possibly deranged young adult. In short, life in captivity began to take its toll. The shows with Dörflein were cancelled in July 2007 due to fears for the keeper’s safety, leading to reports that Knut was pining for human contact. German press reported that he “howls plaintively whenever he picks up Dörflein's scent, and has become so used to the attention of people that he also cries when no one is standing in front of his enclosure watching him”. Another keeper made the poignant comment: “he doesn't know that he's a polar bear”.
Knut was an animal celebrity, worth huge sums to Berlin Zoo not for his value to conservation, but simply because of his ability to entice visitors through the gates. A legal battle over who owned Knut began between Berlin Zoo and another German zoo, which resulted in Berlin Zoo paying $600,000-plus to keep Knut.
Perversely, in many ways Knut was valued far more in captivity than he would ever have been in the wild. In my opinion, this exemplifies much of what is wrong with zoos. While they may trade on their (questionable) commitment to conservation, the biggest fanfare from zoos is reserved for the birth of a baby — any baby, as long as it will bring in the crowds. Zoos are, and will always be, visitor attractions first, second and third, with lofty aspirations such as education and conservation coming way down the list.
Let me be frank: I do not for one minute believe that keeping polar bears in captivity has any role to play in conservation, and furthermore I am all too aware, through recent investigations as part of our EU Zoo Inquiry 2011, of the behavioral and breeding problems associated with keeping this species in zoos. While we await the results of the necropsy that may shed some light on why Knut died, let’s use this opportunity to start to bring an end, once and for all, to keeping polar bears in captivity.