Atlantic Monthly


One of J. M. Coetzee’s characters says the history of zoos is an extension of the history of warfare. The first zoos erected fences less to protect man from beast than to protect beast from man. Zoo-goers viewed the animals as POWs in a long inter-species war, on display to be jeered and attacked as representatives of the enemy. This hostility survives today in the sick exhibition of Knut, the cute bear-orphan who has been the object of exploitation for the first fifteen months of what one hopes will be a short life.

Knut is a combination of abused child-soldier and abused child-star — treated as a useful spectacle, with too little regard for his long-term psychological well-being. In Knut we see soul-withering effects of early fame, and of exploitation of the weak by the powerful. These effects are as evident in him as in Michael Jackson or the cast of Diff’rent Strokes. Now that his youthful charms are fading with his white coat, he still demands constant attention from humans. They stare at him, or he screams in misery. Anyone could have guessed that the lack of same-species companionship and endless train of adoring tourists would eventually damage him, but the zoo kept him on display because apparently cuteness trumps morality. Eventually, cuteness fades, and Knut will turn on his keepers as surely as Michael turned on Joe Jackson. There is a solution to all this, and its name (at least in Knut’s case) is euthanasia.

Originally appeared at


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