A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

What’s a Magical Animal Experience?

Knut, the kangaroos and Ota-Benga are all intertwined

By Michael Mountain

A few years ago, I was driving along a rural road in Australia when I saw a sign warning that kangaroos might be crossing. It was dusk, and as I slowed down, a kangaroo hopped onto the road, stared into my headlights, and disappeared into the forest on the other side.

I stopped and turned off the headlights. A minute or so later, two more kangaroos appeared. And then two more. I could just see them in the half-light, gazing toward the car before crossing into the forest.

It was a magical moment: their sudden appearance, and then the sense of mystery and wonder as they vanished into the growing darkness of the woods. For a moment, I had been in their world, and I felt lucky to have caught this brief glimpse of it.

A few days later, in Adelaide, I spent about an hour at the zoo one afternoon. There was a kangaroo area with about half a dozen roos in a grassy habitat. You could get quite close to them – they were used to people and didn’t seem bothered. But although I was able to watch them close up this time, it was an entirely different experience. While I could see more kangaroo, I actually sensed less kangaroo. Something was missing. Gone was the magic and the mystery, the sudden encounter in the wild, the sense of being in kangaroo land, the thrill of having caught a glimpse of something that was just out of reach.


I’m sure that over the four years that Knut the polar bear lived at the Berlin Zoo, people felt they had a relationship with him. They were deeply touched, and many of them would probably say they’d had a magical experience when they saw him.

Knut was a star from the day he first appeared as a cub, all white and fluffy, with his big eyes and the story of how he’d been saved by zookeeper Thomas Dorflein, who bottle-fed him ‘round the clock – sometimes in public.

Over the past few days since his sudden, shocking death, forums and Facebook pages have been full of grief-stricken messages like “Knut, I love you!!”

But what kind of “love” are they describing? Is it the kind that wants to do what is in the best interest of the one we love? Or is it more that Knut simply aroused parental instincts to cuddle and care for something helpless and furry?
Polar bears certainly need our help – and our love. The fact is they are going extinct. Some will argue that by seeing Knut, people are energized to do something to help them. That would mean a concerted effort to stop the melting of the polar ice on which they depend. And if some people have been led to support environmental efforts after seeing Knut, that’s a good thing. But there’s no clear evidence of this happening on any significant level.

To see a celebrity bear in a captive environment, at first with his zookeeper “mama” and then in a pen with three female bears, may have been an emotional moment, and indeed a memorable one. But to have what’s known as a “peak experience” with animals, you have to go to their world. For many, that can be achieved by visiting a national park. For others, that may mean visiting a city park. Seeing animals in captivity will never be an authentic experience – any more than you could have a real experience of humans by seeing a few of them locked up.

Speaking of which . . .


In 1906, a man called Ota-Benga was brought to New York City and put on display at the Bronx Zoo.

Ota-Benga had been captured in the Congo by slave traders who had killed his wife and children. A missionary had secured his release and persuaded him to be an exhibit at the zoo’s monkey house, where he became a popular attraction as he played with a baby orangutan.

Most people thought this was entirely OK and believed Ota-Benga wasn’t as human as they were, as can be seen in this editorial in The New York Timesthat same year:

“We do not quite understand all the emotion which others are expressing in the matter . . . It is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation Benga is suffering. The pygmies . . . are very low in the human scale, and the suggestion that Benga should be in a school instead of a cage ignores the high probability that school would be a place . . . from which he could draw no advantage whatever. The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education out of books is now far out of date.”

Ota-Benga was later released from the zoo, but he was never able to adapt to the world in which he now found himself, and he eventually committed suicide with a stolen shotgun.

A hundred years later . . .

Times and attitudes have changed, but how much? In 1906 Ota-Benga was in many ways every bit the celebrity that Knut was to become in 2006 at the Berlin Zoo. A hundred years ago, people were fascinated by the new theories about evolution, and parents and teachers believed it would be an educational experience for their children and students to see a Pygmy man close up. Some even argued it would help lower the incidence of racism.

Today, we consider those rationales to be absurd and offensive. We know that nothing valuable can be learned about native cultures by capturing or breeding an individual and putting him or her in a zoo.

So, what might people think, a hundred years from now, when they look back at how we thought it gave us an educational experience to see a bear living out his or her life in similar circumstances?

The brief glimpse I had of those kangaroos crossing the road at dusk touched something within me that was quite different from seeing them later at a zoo. And while I’ve never seen a polar bear in the wild, or a lion or a penguin, I have no inclination now to see them in captivity. Viewing these amazing creatures in a pen, no matter how artfully constructed, is not just something less than; it’s something quite false. There’s nothing in it that can give me a true sense of connection to these amazing creatures. And even if there were, I’d rather go without.

The more I know about animals in captivity, the more it reminds me of Ota-Benga. And I’ve come to the point where to go see them in captivity would leave me with a sense that I’d participated in something that’s just not quite right.