Just four short years ago, a white ball of fluff captured the attention of the world. Now hearts are broken with the news that Knut, the polar bear at the Berlin Zoo, had a convulsion, collapsed and died as hundreds of visitors watched. Even in death Knut was on display.
He was marketed as the poster child for "cute," but Knut was a deeply troubled bear. He spent his days pacing incessantly, bobbing his head repeatedly and exhibiting so much captivity-induced mental distress that one German zoologist called him a "psychopath." Chased, bitten and harassed by his three cellmates and besieged by onlookers, Knut never knew a moment's peace or privacy. Polar bears are naturally solitary animals who shun human contact and don't seek out the company of other bears.
Like all baby animals bred in zoos to bring in paying customers, the adorable cub quickly grew to adulthood. As his marketing and merchandising appeal waned, the Berlin Zoo attempted to unload the less cute adult Knut to another zoo. But Berliners wanted to keep their star. The crowds will move on, but it's too late for Knut.
Polar bears thrive in enormous Arctic expanses and open water--which no zoo can provide. An Ox ford University study found that polar bears suffer physical and mental anguish in captivity and noted that a typical polar bear enclosure is about one-millionth the size of the animal's minimum home range. Captive polar bears all over North America have died young of causes such as eating debris thrown into the cage, fights with cagemates and reactions to anesthesia.
Bears of all species fare very poorly in zoos. In some bear exhibits, the animals' constant pacing wears a visible path into the ground, and sometimes one can see the actual paw impressions in the soil where the bears step in the same spot over and over again. These animals aren't just bored; they are in a state of profound despondency.
Try to imagine living in the same cramped place for the rest of your life. Animals who are genetically designed to roam, swim or fly freely are no more able to adjust to lifelong captivity than we are. That's why prison is considered society's harshest punishment.
We are appalled when we learn that Montezuma put albinos and hunchbacks on display for people's amusement. Yet how is locking animals in cages and letting streams of people gawk, point and laugh at them any different? Just like us, animals want and deserve to live their lives as nature intended.
The next time you consider taking your kids or grandchildren to the zoo, please ask yourself this: Would you wish that kind of bleak existence on your loved ones? Is having a way to occupy the kids for a few hours reason enough to support the lifelong captivity of intelligent and social animals? Do you really want to teach your child that this is the right way to treat the animals they care about?
Keeping animals in cages from birth to death, forcing them into breeding regimens to churn out ticket-selling babies and sentencing animals to a lifetime of deprivation must come to an end. If your family cares about animals, don't support their cruel confinement. Before you buy a zoo ticket, please remember that animals' quality of life matters just as much to them as yours does to you.
Jennifer O'Connor is a staff writer with the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; http://www.PETA.org.