It has been a bumper month for A-list animal celebrities. Knut, Berlin Zoo’s famous polar bear cub, has made the front cover of Vanity Fair, posing in a faked-up photograph with Leonardo DiCaprio. According to that great style magazine, Knut is “a powerful (if not controversial) symbol of what the planet has to lose to global warming”.
He is also, it turns out, an excellent symbol of wildlife marketing, causing such massive queues that shares in Berlin Zoo have more than doubled, producing an unprecedented merchandising boom (800 stuffed Knuts are sold every day) and inspiring, among other things, a blog written on his behalf in three languages.
Older animals have been doing well, too. In America, a very special chimpanzee party has been taking place. A chimp called Cheeta which, amazingly, appeared in a number of films from Tarzan of the Apes (1932) to Dr Dolittle (1967) has just reached his 75th birthday. He still watches films and plays the piano, his carer has told the press, and he thoroughly enjoyed the fuss being made of him. “We sang ‘Happy Birthday’ and Cheeta hooted and hollered. There were film crews here and photographers. He loved it.”
Of course he did, just as Knut, between calls to his agent, must have been thrilled to have become an icon of enviro-chic. It can surely be only a matter of time before Max Clifford adds a celebrity with four legs and a tail to his client list.
Humanity’s attitude to animals is becoming distinctly odd. The greater the anxiety for the planet, the more people seem to want to look to the natural world for a nobility and innocence which we have lost. A zoo-bred polar bear becomes a symbol of man’s threat to the planet; a geriatric chimpanzee is seen to represent a wizened dignity which human film stars have somehow lost along the way.
Yet, in spite of the most earnest efforts to give them human characteristics, animals stubbornly remain themselves. There is nothing new in our childish longing for them to play the part of hairy, clumsy versions of ourselves, but the moment has surely arrived when we recognise that playing these games is demeaning and unkind, perhaps even cruel.
We know, for example, that when the chimpanzees used in the commercials for PG Tips appeared to be laughing, they were in fact expressing fear and stress. Poor old Cheeta’s hooting and hollering for the world’s press was, for all we know, a desperate request to be left alone.
The argument for using animals like Knut for propaganda purposes is a well-worn one. From his cage in Berlin, the little bear will provoke in millions a greater interest in wildlife and its habitat. The hearts of people will melt even faster than the polar ice-caps. Perhaps even the President of the United States will see the error of his ways. “Zoos have an incredible power to inspire people,” David Field of the Zoological Society of London said at the recent launch of the £5.3m Gorilla Kingdom in Regent’s Park.
Is that really still true? Cole Moreton’s perceptive report on the zoo business in this newspaper pointed up how the way wild animals are incarcerated, displayed and marketed has less to do with animal welfare than a desire to appeal to human sentimentality. Wildlife showbiz is as harsh as any other kind: while the queues were forming in Berlin for a peep at Knut, the zoo’s ex-favourite, a panda called Yan Yan, was dying unnoticed in its pen.
When the Captive Animals’ Protection Society protested this week against the 116 zoos in Britain, it was making a worthwhile point. Enough has been discovered about the effects of incarceration, stress, crowding and fear on wild animals for us to know that zoos, by their very nature, are inhumane. The difference between a bear dancing at the end of a chain in a village in India, or a tiger jumping through a flaming hoop at a circus, or a silverback gazing out miserably from his palatial Gorilla Kingdom in the middle of London is only one of degree.
The idea that children are inspired by the sight of a captive animal seems highly dubious. To any sensible young spectator, a zoo would represent not nature or wildness but the capacity of man to control other living creatures.
Of course, money from zoos goes into conservation, and there are breeding programmes to help the survival of species in danger of extinction in the wild. But perhaps it is time to look at ways of fund-raising that do not require the suffering of animals, and of conservation that does not involve marketing rare species to gawping humans.
With all the new talk about respect for the planet, it might be an idea to start respecting the wildness of its animal inhabitants.