Who Killed Knut? the Death of a Polar Bear Casts the Logic of Zoos in a Cold Light. Are They Safe Havens or Places of Sacrifice?
The visitors to Berlin zoo crowded round the enclosure looking, pointing, waving, photographing, and calling out to the most popular inhabitant: Knut the polar bear. He was lying next to his pool, alone in the outdoor space he usually shared with three female bears. He appeared relaxed, perhaps enjoying the thin, mid-March sunshine.
Then he hopped up, as if bitten, his left hind-leg twitching. He started turning in a tight circle, like he was trying to get whatever it was that had his limb in its grip. Some of those watching laughed. ‘It seemed like he was dancing,’ one of them said later. But the laughter broke off as the spasms in his leg grew in violence. The bear’s rotations became frenzied, then stopped. The convulsions spread up his body, taking control of his back, his neck, his head. He looked like he was being pulled by invisible ropes, first sideways over the rocks, and then down into the water with a muted splash.
That was when the screaming started. Some of the onlookers shouted for help, others called out ‘Knut, Knut!’ as if to warn him of the danger. One woman quietly repeated, ‘Oh my God, oh my God.’ With jerking movements, Knut tried to raise his snout out of the water and breathe, but failed. He was drowning. Children who had been asking their parents ‘What’s he doing, mummy?’ began to cry. The shouts of the visitors grew more urgent, as though they believed some superhuman zookeeper could dive in to rescue the 300 kg bear.
A few seconds later, only Knut’s torso was left above the waterline; his head had sunk, though he still twitched with the last remnants of life. Then bubbles erupted to the surface as the air in his lungs was expelled — and he was still, floating face-down in the pool. A hump of white back protruded from the water like an iceberg, while his legs and head were suspended in the dank, greenish pool. By the time zoo staff arrived to cordon off the enclosure and lead away the horrified crowd, it was clear that Knut was dead.