Sunday, October 01, 2006
The Polar Bear Post
When I first read about this guy who decided to get really close to a captive panda, I thought the guy gave the Panda a gash that required stitches. Thankfully, it was the other way around. And, the facility (not a zoo, but more like a breeding facility) says it won't punish the perp (i.e., the guy, not the bear).
This interests me because in my long-delayed post about the 1987 polar bear attack on a 12-year old who'd taken a swim in the bear's moat in Brooklyn's Prospect Zoo, the bear was most definitely punished with a swift death by responding emergency services officers (the Gothamist panda bit links to the Times Select articles about that event). The kid *was* killed, mind you, but he was also messing around after dark in a zoo full of wild animals that was off limits, and entered the bear's moat on a dare, suggesting that the 3 kids involved knew they were flirting with danger. Don't think that I'm some animals-should-have-the-same-rights-as-humans type, or that I'm not sympathetic to a terrible result of the oh-so-typical behavior of a 12- year old kid.
But polar bears are easily the largest, most aggressive, most defensive, strongest, toughest mofos among mammalian carnivores. Barry Lopez's chapter on the bear in his book Artic Dreams is highly recommended. It's practically a love letter - a deep appreciation for what is an astounding being. Auugh. He describes the bear from behavior to physiology, including the amazing and efficient hairs that keep in warm in its chilly home, and the reprehensible record of man's interaction with the bear. It's an homage that helps you understand why the Inuit traditionally respect and fear the bear in equal measure, without ever having to visit up north. (Lopez' book is fascinating even if you aren't interested in the Artic).
Most of us don't get drunk or dared and climb into zoo enclosures to, for whatever reason, be nearer the animals. But I still have to wonder what zoos actually teach us about wild animals, and especially what they teach us about our place in relation to them. I grew up with the zoo and wild animal parks in San Diego as my main form of weekend entertainment; my mother has Super-8 footage of me gleefully cavorting with the goats in the petting zoo as a toddler. I had a stuffed raccoon until I was 8 or 9. I got as close as the chainlink fence and 6 inch glasses permitted me to see the tigers (always my favorite) at the wild animal park. I have a natural fear and awe of things that are bigger than I, and owed at least in part to the zoo, an appreciation. But I wonder how much that natural fear - and therefore, appreciation - is diminished when, after watching Gus (pictured here) at Central Park Zoo mellow and swimming, an 8 or 10 or 12 year walks into the gift shop at the zoo to see a dozen cutified and stuffed versions of Gus there for the purchase.