The Knut and Tom Show

In late September, while speculation regarding the financial crisis dominated news outlets worldwide, the German media found itself distracted by a comparatively local story: the untimely death of Berlin Zoo employee Thomas Dörflein.

Dörflein was a man so beloved in his home city that he could hardly leave his apartment without being swarmed by groupies, but the real celebrity was his animal charge, Knut, a polar bear cub born in the Berlin Zoo in December 2006. Rejected at birth by his mother, Tosca, Knut lost his twin brother four days later to infection. Under Dörflein’s care, the 810-gram whelp nonetheless became Berlin’s first Eisbär to survive infancy in over thirty years. He enjoyed a prolonged period of international stardom—complete with action figures, product endorsements, theme songs, remixes, magazine covers, TV segments, and feature films—before maturing from plush toy to ferocious carnivore. Knutmania, as the press dubbed it, centered around the “Knut and Tom Show,” a one-hour, twice-daily attraction during which Dörflein frolicked with his ursine protégé beneath the fusillade of appreciative cameras. The pair drew paparazzi and admirers from all over the world.

On September 22, the police found Dörflein’s body in a friend’s apartment in Wilmersdorf, a neighborhood in central-western Berlin. The cause of death: heart attack. Dörflein was 44. His girlfriend Gabriela Kaiser and two adult children survive him. Official press releases on the subject remained this terse. Yet in the days that followed, the emotional outpouring over Dörflein’s death attained an intensity that shocked even me, a professed Knut enthusiast. “Everyone wanted to be like Thomas Dörflein,” the popular tabloid BZ proclaimed. “He not only cared for Knut, he nurtured our desire to see harmony between man and beast.” Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit echoed the sentiment, publicly lamenting the city’s tragic loss. “The residents of Berlin, the senate, and I myself received this news with great dismay,” he wrote in a letter to Dörflein’s mother. “It is incomprehensible that this great, strong, congenial man is no longer with us.”

Within weeks, the Berlin Zoo created an annual award in Dörflein’s honor. Their online Condolence Book registered 10,713 entries—some composed in rhyming verse, many several paragraphs long, festooned with emoticon-arabesques. YouTube was flooded with montage tributes. Still more striking were the “real” TV segments I caught online. Despite a prematurely frigid autumn drizzle, a steady stream of people turned up to pay their respects at Knut’s enclosure, placing flowers, candles, and even propping condolence letters up against the glass. On Welt TV a camera lingered on an envelope addressed in capitalized red crayon to “DAD” before cutting to one badly shaken woman. Voice breaking, she told the reporter: “The worst thing about it was that it was just so sudden. We weren’t…at all prepared.”

Wir waren gar nicht drauf vorbereitet. At the time I found myself quoting this stuttered lament repeatedly to my German friends here in New York. Now, two months later, I am starting to understand my fascination. At one level, of course, the words are unremarkable, rote rhetoric of grief. We weren’t ready, the Berlin native sobbed. Of course not: that’s what death is. Yet her choice of phrase continued to haunt me. It still does, less because of the evident sincerity of her mourning than her puzzling tone of indignation. The untimely revival of Knutmania following Dörflein’s death revealed that the bear-craze had been intended to prepare us for something. But what?

Knut was a household name in Germany within weeks of his birth, thanks to vociferous debates regarding how far the zoo should go to ensure that the deserted cub lived. In recognition of his need for around-the-clock care, Dörflein moved into an apartment in the zoo and took to sleeping on a mattress beside Knut’s crate. He played with and bathed Knut daily, feeding him formula mixed with cod liver oil out of a baby bottle. Going Orphic, he would even croon the beast to sleep by strumming Elvis lullabies on his guitar.

German animal rights lawyer and PETA spokesperson Frank Albrecht enraged Knut-admirers when he argued that it would be better to let the cub perish, or even to euthanize him, than to raise him under such unnatural conditions. Albrecht later filed criminal charges against the Zoo for “extreme animal mistreatment.” Other zoologists joined in condemning the highly unusual rearing process, saying that it was producing “neurotic” or “psychopathic” tendencies in the forcibly hybridized Tierkind (“animal-child”).

The Zoo itself conceded that Knut would have “disturbed relations” to other bears for the rest of his life. But such critical voices were soon drowned out. Thousands pleaded on behalf of their teddy incarnate, writing letters and protesting in Berlin. Who can blame them? For those many of us who have never experienced intimate proximity to an animal besides, perhaps, a household pet, the apparently close relationship between Dörflein and his adopted “son” fulfilled Disney dreams sown at childhood.

On March 23, 2007, when Knut was deemed strong enough to be introduced to the public, Dörflein led him out before the five hundred journalists eagerly assembled. Minister for the Environment Sigmar Gabriel not only formally accepted the title of “godfather” to Knut, but also declared him Germany’s global warming ambassador. From this debut onward, the Knut and Tom Show flourished, drawing an average of 4,000 visitors a day. Despite the occasional hitch—for instance a threat received in late April (“Knut is dead! Midday Thursday”)—the Show went on until November, broadcast daily on ZDF, one of the largest public television channels in Europe.

Knut’s mother had formerly performed with the state circus of the GDR, and Knut showed a knack for the family business. Dörflein, for his part, remained winningly devoted to the cub until well past the bottle-feeding stage. Eventually zoo director Bernhard Blaskiewicz forbade him from seeing Knut for safety reasons, and the Knut and Tom Show shut down, but Dörflein continued sneaking into the Eisbär‘s cage. The reporters who waited to catch the two in flagrante delicto described their trysts in eroticized terms: the “illicit” (Spiegel) “cuddle-pair” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) met to “canoodle” (taz). Knut was growing up. The angry Blaskiewicz put an end to the rendezvous in December 2007, publicly threatening to fire Dörflein, but readers loved it. And all things Knut continued to sell, sell, sell.

Knut was not the Berlin Zoo’s first major star. Bobby, a gorilla born in 1928 and also raised under the care of a foster father, drew legions of visitors during the Weimar Era. A hippo named Nautschke enjoyed similar popularity in the postwar period. Still, the extent of Knut’s celebrity is staggering. Knut made 2007 the most successful in the 166-year history of the Berlin Zoo, attracting 30 percent more visitors than the previous year. By conservative estimates he has generated around ten million euros in profit to date, and has inspired numerous product tie-ins. Dresdner Bank offered Knut GoldCards. The Royal Porcelain Manufacturing Company of Dresden came out with a Knut figurine, which the former Stasi-rag Berliner Zeitung then hawked to its readers at €150 apiece. The Zoo Gift Shop still sells hundreds of T-shirts and souvenir teddy bears to tourists daily. The Federal Mint has issued 25,000 silver commemorative Knut and Dörflein coins. By my count Knut has at least 34 acting credits on IMDB. Dörflein has 10.

This proliferation of Knut products not only celebrated the triumph of an adorable orphan over tough odds; it also represented his appeal as synecdoche for a region of the planet under serious threat. Environmental Minister Gabriel’s bid to pit Knut as an international symbol against climate change had clearly succeeded by May 2007, when Vanity Fair put him on the cover of its “Green Issue.” Shot by Annie Leibovitz in Berlin, the cub was digitally edited onto a shard of ice beside a windswept and reproachfully squinting Leonardo di Caprio, who was photographed on the Jügosárlón glacier lagoon in southeast Iceland.

As Leibovitz’s photos confirmed, Knut could offer consumers a winning image of nature in all its fragility, pitched against the destructive forces of global warming. An image more marketable than, say, still-devastated New Orleans or bloated human corpses in the flooded streets of Burma. Knut, the plaything made flesh, presented a vision of Nature defanged, less “other” to us even than human beings from other parts of the planet. Isn’t it telling that the German Vanity Fair, making him a cover-bear a month before their American counterpart, posed him like a biped–or, rather, a domesticated dog obligingly standing on command?

At six months old, Knut had achieved all the Berlin Zoo could have hoped for. A cuddly fetish object, endangered but not dangerous, he seemed to reaffirm the salutary strength of human values like compassion.

Dörflein was central not only to Knut’s surival, but also to his environmentalist appeal. The millions of Germans who daily followed Knut and Tom reflected a deep desire to overcome the alienation that the Western city-dweller feels not only from animals, but from all of what German, casting a wider net, calls die Kreatur. That noun from the Latin creare, “to make,” shares the sacred residues of its English cognate: (God’s) Creation. Unlike “animal,” from anima, the word for “breath,” it encompasses the inanimate life forms that we typically hold beneath moral consideration: minerals and plants. We might translate it creatively as all that is disappearing. (Shortly after Dörflein’s death, scientists announced that Arctic sea ice had reached its lowest level since tracking began, breaking the record nadir for the third time in five years.)

If the €12 ticket to see Knut bought millions cathexis for their repressed eco-apocalyptic fantasies, infatuation with the bear and his trainer retained the ambivalence of any wish fulfillment. By summer 2007, when I was working at a daily newspaper in Berlin, Knut had garnered enough attention to inspire a counter-reaction—what my colleagues at Die Welt referred to as “the great Knut Hassliebe.” Hate-love. With Catullan compression, the German caboose-noun expressed the ambivalence that we felt toward this banal and overexposed symbol of our culpability as we typed away in our overly air-conditioned office. It became a ritual each morning for us to scrutinize, then lampoon, the daily Knut feature in the BILD Zeitung—the notoriously mendacious right-wing tabloid which was also owned by Die Welt‘s parent company, and whose twelve million Knut-obsessed daily readers more or less paid our salaries.

Not only style and culture journalists, who were forced to consume large amounts of Knut-kitsch for professional reasons, were susceptible to this Hassliebe. I also witnessed it in my roommates, who painstakingly made a papier-mâché “Knutpiñata” for a party—and then, at the critical moment, couldn’t muster the heart to smash it. Laying down their arms, they pried open the hatch in Knutpiñata’s rear and sheepishly offered the sweets to their guests.

In the minds of hopeful officials like Sigmar Gabriel, Knut’s noble role was to draw attention to the dire plight of die Kreatur at this moment in history. But in fact Knutmania exemplifies the operations of the forces that have been marginalizing and destroying creatures for centuries. Its compulsive gestures constitute an elaborate mourning ritual. The zoo itself is a kind of epitaph.

German twentieth-century philosophers across the ideological spectrum–Heidegger at one pole, Adorno and Horkheimer at the other–criticized the technological or extractive attitude that modern Western civilization took toward nature. No modern institution embodies this attitude more concretely than the zoological garden. The Jardin des Plantes in Paris was founded, with animals from the royal collection, in 1793. The London and Berlin Zoos followed suit in 1828 and 1844. As nationalistic competition fueled imperial ambitions, zoos became sites for displaying colonial spoils–a fact to which the florid “oriental” décor of the Berlin Zoo still attests. Empowered by the massive colonial trade that helped usher in the first phase of modern globalization, European entrepreneurs brought back exotic humans for display alongside nonhuman creatures. With the stated objective of educating the populace, the democratized menagerie demonstrated the power of the nineteenth-century nation-state, and the increasingly global reach of its economy first and foremost.

The rise of the European zoo coincided with the disappearance of animals from the everyday lives of many people in the West. To put exotic animals, human or non-human, on view before a European public was to make them walking testaments to their own subjection, and to the imminent destruction of their fellows and their habitats elsewhere.

At the same time, the zoo concretely embodied trends marginalizing “the animal” from modern philosophy. At least since Descartes’ famous characterization of animals as automata, animality was what was excluded from metaphysics. With the person defined as a “rational animal,” his animal dimension became what his properly human parts had to strive to transcend—a blind spot or vanishing point within. The zoo, transforming the encounter with the animal into an aesthetic spectacle, literalized the situation of the modern subject-as-spectator—distanced from the object, of which we can only find appearances, representations. As Rainer Maria Rilke puts it at the beginning of his eighth Duino Elegy: “With all its eyes the Creature [die Kreatur] looks out / into the Open. Only our eyes are turned / backward, and surround plant, animal, child / like traps . . .”

The lack of real insight into the animal that the subject is granted, even as the animal is made maximally visible, is a theme to which (the substantial) German Modernist literature of zoos returns time and again. Beside Rilke’s oft-anthologized “The Panther,” and the Duino Elegy quoted above, when I think of Knut, I think especially of Kafka’s 1917 story, “Report for an Academy.”

In that story Kafka’s ape-speaker, Red Peter, appears on stage to narrate his life to a learned human audience. Yet in order to do so, he explains, in order to gain standing amid the beings with language, he has had to forget his animal past. “My achievements,” he explained, “would have been impossible, if I had stubbornly wanted to hold onto my origin.” Although, or perhaps because he is eloquent, Red Peter can tell his audience nothing about what they really want to hear: “Your apedom, Gentlemen, insofar as you have something of that kind behind you, cannot be farther from you than mine from me.” Knut, like Red Peter, is a consummate ventriloquist: he has a regularly updated blog with first-person entries translated into English, Italian, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese. But what can his posts really tell us about bearhood? What can they do but obscure it? (And who writes these things, anyway?)

Walter Benjamin, a frequent visitor to the Berlin Zoo, similarly stressed what his rough contemporary, the poet René Char, called the “permanent-invisible” quality of animals. In his memoir Berlin Childhood around 1900, in an episode entitled “The Fish-Otter,” he writes: “A small stone- and grotto-structure surrounded, in the background, the oval of the bath. It was intended to be a home for the animal; but I never saw it inside. And so I often remained, waiting endlessly before its bottomless, black depths…” This experience of waiting for something that does not appear is one any regular zoo-goer will recognize. Whether you are attending a creature that is literally hiding, like the Fish-Otter, or staring at one that has been made unnaturally accessible, like Red Peter—what you are really seeing is the creature becoming invisible. That is, the strength of the historical and philosophical forces that have conspired to make its authentic life vanish.

As art historian John Berger has put it: “The zoo to which people go to meet animals, to observe them, to see them, is, in fact, a monument to the impossibility of such encounters.” Berger was writing in the late 1970s. Since then, the transposition of the zoo into the digital realm has pressed the Modernist dynamics of the disappearing animal to an even further extreme, while human industry continues to accelerate the real destruction that was already underway in Rilke, Kafka, and Benjamin’s time.

Knut heralds a new generation of star animals. For them, the ersatz habitat, that melancholy scrap of ground afforded by the metropolitan zoo, has become the non-place of the World Wide Web. The mutual misprision that takes place in the exchange of gazes between “Man” and “Beast” through the bars of a cage, the implicitly violent look, becomes a mouse click. Click. Knut dances above a cartoon-ocean reminiscent of the 1999 Vengaboys europop video “We Like to Party.” Click. Knut appears with a scrawled-on pink tutu—which, like a post-shower towel wrapped around Donald Duck’s waist, makes his body suddenly obscene (welcome to postlapsarian shame, poor bear). Even when he is posed on a realistic-looking glacier with Leo di Caprio, no one would assume that Knut’s setting has an actual referent in a physical world. There’s no “there” there. No one expects there to be.

What we are looking at in Knut, then, as symbol of a threatened species is also a species in its etymological sense. The Latin translation of the Greek eidos, it means not only the “image” of something, but also (as in the English word “spook”) its “ghost.” This is what the real/historical tradition that produced the zoo, and the philosophical and cultural traditions that produce the “rational animal,” do. They prepare us for the disappearance of the animal, which they rehearse and encourage at the same time that they ostensibly mourn it.

The digital zoo raises the stakes of the disappearance of the animal enacted in “real” zoos in that it seems to be a harbinger of the disappearance of the real tout court. All around us, the floodwaters are rising. We can linger in the internet, with its inexhaustible utopia of whatever-landscape-you-please—the matte screen, an open hatch to the little steel ark of my MacBook. But can we live in there? This is the anxiety that arises where the Knut and Tom show ends, with Dörflein dying first.

Inverting the order that the zoo proposes (the animals die, we watch), Dorflein’s passing reminds us that our mourning rituals are not just about self-exculpating sentimentality. The threat hanging over Knut will be our mess too, sooner or later. Dörflein’s death—probably any death—serves to remind us that we, like animals, are exposed to the world. Having bodies, as they do, we are susceptible to forces outside our control. Animals call us to awareness about this most basic fact.

If an unfamiliar animal were to walk into the room while you read this, you would turn immediately from these words. Looking into the animal’s eyes, you would find yourself in the moment in a way you are not, right now. This is why the remains of so many early cultures scattered across multiple continents include animal religious figurines. It’s also why animals like Knut are so appropriate to spectacle entertainment. In their proximity we find ourselves in a fuller mode of attention, a sense of astonishment at our own creaturely nature and how it connects us to our surroundings. Can this sense provide the urgency needed for a new ethics with respect to die Kreatur? Can we bring ourselves to see it, before we don’t?

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