After Knut: Zoos And The Line Between Animal Boredom And Animal Cruelty

Knut the Polar Bear
Knut the Polar Bear
Claudia Ehrenstein

HAMBURG - For Stephan Hering-Hagenbeck, whose family has run this city's zoo for over 100 years, there are challenges both inside and outside the gates of any such "animal park."

Inside this zoo, as for every zoo around the world, the biggest challenge is to keep the animals from getting bored. Hering-Hagenbeck explains that animals in the wild are busy ensuring their survival 24 hours a day. They have to find food, defend themselves or their territory.

"In a zoo, all of that is done by humans," says Hering-Hagenbeck, who has a degree in biology and has spent many years in Africa studying how animals live in the wild, so he could incorporate as many features as possible into his zoo.

At a time when more and more people live in cities and know less and less about the way animals live in nature, Hering-Hagenbeck says the zoo’s main mission is educational. "We want to interest our visitors in nature," he says. But that can only happen if the zoo’s animals are happy – and that can only happen if they are being kept in conditions suitable to their species.

Penguins in the wild, for example, normally have to leave their breeding colony and travel quite far to find food. That’s something that zoos have so far not incorporated into the design of penguin enclosures, he says. At the Hagenbeck zoo, the colony space is now separated from the feeding space by a 50-meter-wide (164 feet) water basin so the penguins have to walk and swim if they want to eat. It is good for them – and interesting for visitors.

Hering-Hagenbeck of course knows that a zoo cannot simulate nature. But it can offer the animals some diversity. A good-sized enclosure is important, but so is the way it’s set up. The zoo has invested over 20 million euros in a new polar-sea facility where polar bears, penguins and walruses live together.

The polar bears are favorites of the public, although elephants and apes are also high on the list. They draw people to the zoo, as Berlin Zoo’s world-famous Knut the polar bear proved, before dying in 2011.

"Like people, apes don’t belong in a zoo"

Indeed, it is now precisely these particularly beloved animals that animal rights activists want to ban from zoos. James Brückner of Munich’s Animal Protection Academy is calling for zoos to forgo keeping certain animals in order to make more room for others.

"It’s not about prohibiting zoos per se," says Brückner. But polar bears, for example, need to cover big distances to find food, and they can’t satisfy their need for movement in a zoo. What’s more, he says, they’re loners – so the close contact with other polar bears, not to mention zoo visitors, is a source of suffering that could in a worst-case scenario lead to behavioral disturbances and illness.

The animal rights activists are receiving support from German Green party members. Undine Kurth, the Greens’ animal protection spokeswoman, believes that it is vital to rethink the presence of certain animals in zoos. "Apes don’t belong in a zoo," Kurth says: like people, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos have a sense of themselves, so ethically it is not right to keep them cooped up and exhibited in a zoo.

Nor should dolphins be in zoos, Kurth says. The tiny basins they are kept in amount to animal cruelty, and the activist insists that the last two German dolphinariums (in Duisburg and Nuremberg) should be closed. Kurth called for binding guidelines for keeping animals in zoos and nature parks based on living conditions of the animals in the wild. Present German law makes recommendations only.

The 70-page Mindestanforderungen an die Haltung von Säugetieren ("Minimum Requirements for Keeping Mammals"), which dates from 1996, is presently being reviewed by the German Minister for Agriculture Ilse Aigner, thus opening up the opportunity for animal rights activists to try and push through stricter regulations for zoos.

Stephan Hering-Hagenbeck takes a pretty laid-back view of the revision of the legislation, which he points out deals with minimum requirements. The Hagenbeck zoo, he says, aims for "best practice" based on the latest scientific knowledge.

He offers one example: the zoo used to have fixed installations for orangutans to climb on. But after a trip to Borneo, Hering-Hagenbeck observed that in the wild the apes move cautiously from branch to branch, testing each one first for solidity. So for his zoo’s orangutan enclosure they designed new equipment that re-creates the need for testing as the animals clamber about. Hering-Hagenbeck says it’s been a big hit with the apes -- and also makes for a more interesting visit for the humans watching them.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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