The Washington Post Column

A Global Warm and Fuzzy Escape

He is small, white, fluffy and cuddly. Though only 4 months old, his face has already graced thousands of T-shirts, most major German newspapers and a good number of coffee mugs. This month he shares a glossy magazine cover with Leonardo DiCaprio. Haribo, the company that brought us Gummi Bears, plans to produce a raspberry-flavored candy in his honor. In case you have somehow escaped him on the evening news (and in Europe this is impossible), you can watch him on the Web playing with his trainer, chewing on a towel or taking his first steps.

I am talking about Knut, of course, the baby polar bear born in December at the Berlin Zoo. Rejected by his mother, he has been raised by a zookeeper (now a minor celebrity himself) over the objections of some animal rights groups that wanted him put to sleep rather than be raised “unnaturally.” Now strong, healthy and cuter than ever, he receives 15,000 to 20,000 visits a day and has single-handedly transformed the fortunes of a zoo whose most popular attraction, I can testify, was hitherto its centrally located playground. Before Knut, no one knew the Berlin Zoo was a listed company. After Knut, the price of Berlin Zoo shares tripled.

Although German zoo officials say they can’t think of a comparable animal celebrity, Washingtonians can. Having ordered the tickets and stood in the hour-long line just to see the National Zoo’s comparably cute baby panda, Tai Shan, gnaw on some frozen fruit juice, I understand that the human obsession with baby animals knows no national borders.

Still, some further explanation is required. Why panda bears and polar bears? The National Zoo has bred baby cheetahs and the Berlin Zoo has bred more than one rhinoceros, but famous photographers and the international press corps were not rushing to take their pictures. Surely a dose of anthropomorphism is partly responsible: Baby bears simply look human in a way that baby rhinos do not. So, too, is the newspaper-buying public’s immediate need to read something cheerful. One German journalist pointed out that Knut’s first public appearance upstaged U.N. sanctions on Iran and the latest Kremlin ban of its political opponents, and no wonder: “Thankfully, we are blessed with the ability to crawl under a warm, mental blanket of denial when things get too much.”

But Tai Shan and Knut also arouse deep feelings because they fit neatly into narratives about pollution, endangered species and, in the case of the baby polar bear, global warming. After 30 years of unsuccessful attempts to breed a panda in captivity, Tai Shan’s birth appeared (especially to those of us Washingtonians who remember the first pandas arriving from China in 1972) to be a triumph of American veterinary science over the Chinese farmers who cut down their bamboo trees. Knut’s survival — despite maternal rejection, the scorn of animal rights groups and melting polar ice caps — is no less uplifting.

The truth, of course, is that both baby bears symbolize not success but failure. The difficulty of breeding pandas in zoos and captive polar bears’ rejection of their young are actually proof that large mammals are profoundly unsuited to cages. Their captivity is justified only because they are endangered in the wild, yet it is unlikely that either bear will live in the wild anyway.

While we have not “saved” the endangered polar bears by saving Knut, his existence allows a lot of people to feel better about themselves anyway: Purchasing a Knut T-shirt has already become a form of anti-global-warming activism. And if you believe the British philosopher Roger Scruton, who has written extensively and critically about the animal rights movement, this isn’t entirely innocent behavior. Projecting human feelings onto animals inevitably leads to “playing at God,” he writes, and allows us to imagine “that we confer the greatest benefit on those whom we patronize.” He points out, for example, that although the sweet passivity of a pet rabbit encourages “its owner’s utterly fallacious view of himself as the kindly provider,” the rabbit’s life in captivity is sheer mental torture.

Although I’m not advocating death for either of them, it’s hard to say whether Knut or Tai Shan is really “happy” in captivity, whatever “happy” means for a bear. It’s equally hard to say whether their miraculous births will ever improve the deteriorating natural environment of their wild cousins, let alone prevent global warming. It is not at all hard to guess, however, that most 6-year-olds of your acquaintance will soon be demanding a stuffed Knut toy for their 7th birthday. Buy one if you will — but don’t imagine you’ll help save the polar bears by doing so.