Extinction Is Forever, So Give Knut a Chance

By David L. Brown

A leading animal activist in Germany has called for the death of this cute little fellow in the Berlin Zoo:

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What capital crime was committed by this baby polar bear, fondly known to the public as Knut? His sin was to be rejected by his mother after being born in the zoo and then adopted by humans. According to Bild, Europe’s largest circulation newspaper, animal-rights activist Frank Albrecht has said that “Feeding by hand is not species-appropriate but a gross violation of animal-protection laws. The zoo must kill the bear.”

Bild has featured regular photo spreads tracking the life of the photogenic bear. Knut has captured the hearts of Germans, so Albrecht’s advice is not likely to be followed. However, the point he raises is an interesting one, not least because the natural habitat of the polar bear is rapidly vanishing as the Arctic ice rapidly melts.

Because of the changing environment the World Conservation Union has already added the polar bear to its Red List of species in danger of extinction. Soon the only bears may exist in zoos, and if mother bears in these unnatural habitats refuse to claim their offspring there could be no future at all for the species. Is that something that we humans can accept?

If animal species can exist only without help from humans, as Albrecht suggests, how are they to survive at all as the natural environment continues to fall before our bulldozers, plows and chainsaws? Truly this poses an ethical conundrum of epic proportions. There are only three alternatives here:

  1. Make accommodation to save species from extinction by providing them with artificial and perhaps temporary places of refuge such as zoos;
  2. Allow species whose habitats have been destroyed to become extinct; or
  3. Preserve or reinstate the natural environments the animals require.

In many cases there is little possibility for the third alternative, as for example in the case of the polar bear which depends on the vanishing ice floes. When faced with the question of whether to allow major fauna to be forced into extinction by human activity, few of us have hearts cold enough to embrace option number two.

That leaves only the first scenario, which would create artificial places (such as the Berlin Zoo) where animals can be preserved at least for the time being. If the Arctic ice does indeed disappear entirely, there may be no opportunity to reintroduce the polar bear into the wild, but we should not be too quick to consign them into the geological record of extinction.

An example of what can be done is provided by the California Condor. Not too long ago these stately vultures were on the edge of extinction, with only a handful left. Evolved to dine on the carcasses of mammoths and other mega-fauna that roamed North America until the recent past, the condors with their nine-foot wingspans found it to be slim pickings when the giant animals disappeared from the scene.

Concerned by the looming fate of these magnificent birds, biologists captured the few remaining individuals and placed them in safe keeping in zoos. With human care new generations of condors were hatched and eventually they began to be re-introduced into the wild. This is still an on-going project so the final result cannot be known, but there are now more than 100 wild condors soaring in the Western skies. They have been spotted as far away as Utah and there is hope they can once again become a permanent part of the environment.

Another example of how a declining species can be brought back from the brink is provided by the Bald Eagle, symbol of America, which was once endangered but now is commonly seen in many parts of North America.

Whatever happens to the Arctic ice, my vote is to let Knut live and prosper under the human attention of the zoo. After all, extinction is forever, and we cannot know what opportunities the future may bring.

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