Berlin's Sad News Bears
By Michael Scott Moore
Never mind the polar bear: Captive brown bears have lived in a
hard-to-find park in Berlin since 1939. They symbolize the city -- a bear
has been on Berlin's coat of arms since at least 1280 -- but do they have
enough Lebensraum? Knutmania has led some activists to ask if the official
mascots have enough space.
While Knut the baby polar bear stumbles twice a day in front of adoring
fans at the Berlin Zoo, doubling the park's stock price and achieving
world celebrity just for being alive, three adult brown bears lie around
in a small concrete enclosure in another part of Berlin, looking bored.
Schnute, Maxi and Tilo belong to the city itself: They're Berlin's
official, living mascots. But now animal-rights activists argue a new home
should be found for them.
The bears live in a brick house with a pair of tiny yards surrounded by a
concrete moat originally built in 1939 for mascot bears donated to the
city on the occasion of Berlin's 700th anniversary. The enclosure sits in
Köllnischer Park, next to the city's history museum.
But is it too small in a new era in which most zoos are trying to create
environments for their animals that offer more space and reflect their
natural habitat? Yes, says the Berlin tabloid B.Z., which kicked up a
minor scandal on Thursday by putting the bears' "suffering" on its cover
and saying the bears look "sad" and wander around "with an empty gaze."
The head of German chapter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
(PETA), Harald Ullmann, said, "I didn't even know there were bears there,"
before a crusading journalist from B.Z. called him on Wednesday.
"According to current zoo guidelines they have enough space, but in our
opinion that isn't enough. They have 480 square meters (5,166 square feet)
to live in for their entire lives."
"It's not optimal"
The bear enclosure at the Berlin Zoo provides 2,500 square meters (26,909
square feet) for five bears -- or almost five times as much space.
"It's a difficult situation," said Evamarie König, spokeswoman for
Berlin's Animal Protection Association. Because of the enclosure size, she
said, "It's not optimal. But the bears are healthy, we have to admit --
they're well cared for. And their enclosure can't be changed because it's
under landmark protection."
Christa Junge, head of Bärenfreunde Berlin (Friends of the Bears in
Berlin), which has looked after the animals since 1994, said the bears are
not just healthy but also content. "The enclosure is larger than zoo
guidelines recommend and as long as that's the case, nothing will change,"
she said. "What the B.Z. wrote about an 'empty gaze' is just silly. The
house is much bigger inside than it looks, and it has a skylight. The
bears can always retreat into it, which is very important." She pointed
out that bears in the Berlin Zoo have no privacy; they're always on
display. "Ours can come and go (during the day) at will."
The irony of the episode is that B.Z. led the original campaign in 1937 to
introduce live bears to Berlin. A reader at the time wrote to suggest that
"we, the citizens of the liveliest city" deserved a free exhibit of live
mascots -- modelled on a bear exhibit in the Swiss capital of Bern. Berlin
politicians responded in a fit of enthusiasm over the city's 700th
anniversary by offering space in Köllnischer Park. The B.Z. organized a
gift of four animals, and the enclosure was built in two years.
Unfortunately, by 1939, Hitler was mounting a war against Poland, and the
bears were dead by 1945. But a new bear couple moved into the enclosure in
1949 and became iconic animals for East Berliners during most of the Cold
War. Nante and Jette even had a daughter, Julchen, in 1953. The family
died off in the '80s, but the city has maintained bears in Köllnischer
Park ever since.
In Bern, meanwhile, the wheels of reform have started to turn. The old
bear pit there is still a major tourist attraction. But after years of
complaints by activists and visitors about the cramped enclosure, the
cantonal parliament approved a plan in March to build a 6,500 square meter
park to accommodate the city's mascots.
This controversy is not exactly new to Berlin. In 1991 the head of the
Berlin Zoo, Bernhard Blazkiewitz, argued that the bears should have better
living arrangements -- in a zoo, for example. "If the city wants to keep
that kennel as a landmark, we can put plastic bears in it," he quipped at
But Christa Junge says Blazkiewitz was outnumbered by Berliners. "There
was an uproar," she said. "Thousands of people wrote letters," against the
idea of giving the mascots away. "Berliners wanted to keep their bears."