Some of you may remember Eisbärbaby Knut, the polar bear from Berlin Zoo who had to be hand-reared after his mother rejected him. Some of you may also remember Thomas Dörflein, the zoo keeper who looked after Knut and used to play with him until he got too big and dangerous.
The Guardian reported today that Thomas Dörflein has died; he had been ill for some time. It has already been reported that Knut himself is not in the best of shape. Although now too big to have in the company of people, he is still of an age where in the wild his mother would look after him, so he is on his own and is apparently a sad little bear.
You would really have to wonder about the wisdom of keeping polar bears in zoos. In the wild, polar bears have massive ranges, happily travelling hundreds of miles over the summer hunting season. That the constraints they find themselves in in zoos lead to them going mad and neglecting their young should perhaps not be too surprising. I remember hearing anecdotally that when Dublin Zoo had polar bears, the mothers used to eat their babies, while in Germany another baby polar bear was abandoned by its mother earlier this year.
There have been reports (1, 2) that Berlin Zoo (among others) has been over-breeding cute baby animals to keep visitor numbers up, and then quietly exterminating older and less appealing specimens. If true, these allegations are disturbing, and they challenge the whole idea that zoos serve any kind of useful function.
Thomas Dörflein is succeeded by his partner and three children.