Though I’m a former zoo docent who played catch with Bubba a couple times, I have to say I never felt any particular connection with the polar bears. They were the zoo’s most popular attraction, but I preferred spending time with the brown bears, cougars, ravens, magpie, eagles, hawk, the snakes and other education animals, and in the nocturnal section.
So when word came of Bubba’s death from what is believed to be liver disease, I didn’t feel any strong reaction. It wasn’t until I read comments on the zoo’s website from people describing their sadness and tears that I started to feel a little choked up myself. I was glad to see people not only had been affected by an animal’s life and death but were willing to acknowledge those feelings.
At the same time, I understood the reason people had those feelings, and why this bear had been more important to them than the other animals at the zoo, was because they saw him as an entertainer, not a bear. If he hadn’t thrown a ball back and forth, he wouldn’t have been the star attraction. He would have been another animal briefly stared at before the people moved on to the next cage. Even assuming the best intentions, the zoo couldn’t really teach people about Bubba as polar bear because once he was captive in a cage instead of living life in his own ecosystem, surrounded by predators and prey and cohorts, affected by the weather and moving with the seasons, he really no longer was a polar bear. One learns biological data such as skin color and insulation properties, but one doesn’t learn the being. Learning and appreciating the actual beings which surround us would lead to societal changes in the behaviors which are likely to cause the extinction of wild polar bears. Has society changed its behavior because of its great love of all the Bubbas in its zoos? In fact, they’ve used their cars to get to the zoos and sped up the process.
I went to the zoo (by bus, slightly better than a car) for the day of Bubba appreciation and asked a docent I knew if any changes had been noticed in Berlin’s behavior after Bubba’s death since they had lived together all their lives. I was told there has been some pacing behavior (always bad news and something you’ll see almost all zoo animals do, at least until they lose even that much spirit of frustration and resistance) but she is eating, and I’d seen pacing in the past.
I shake my head at the idea of searching for intelligent life in space because I think we show very little of our own here and have no appreciation for that of other species because it is exhibited in ways other than our way which obviously must be superior. Rather than making the logical assumption that all beings have emotions, we caution against applying “human emotions” to other animals. Keeping that wide divide between ourselves and other species is the only way for people to live with their treatment of other beings and maintain the economic system which depends on their continued abuse. Our civilization has used the same bigotry to destroy other forms of human society which lived in closer harmony with the natural world.
Being a docent was a great opportunity and experience for me, but it was an opportunity taken at other beings’ expense, not an experience shared freely. Ultimately, a zoo is a place of sadness for me, and after being away for over a year, this one was even sadder for me with many animals I used to watch now gone. It seems unlikely I’ll be going back, and that’s a sadness of another kind.