The Cute Factor by Michael Engelhard


Our resolution in 2017? To kickstart the museum’s blog!

Today, we’re honored to present this guest post from Michael Engelhard, author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. With this wintery weather upon us and heightened concerns

Man and beast in harmony—an idealized image. In reality, the relationship between Knut and his caregiver had its rocky stretches. Wildness clashed with “cuteness” once in a while, when the bear behaved like one. (Photo by Simone Reinhardt)

Man and beast in harmony—an idealized image. In reality, the relationship between Knut and his caregiver had its rocky stretches. Wildness clashed with “cuteness” once in a while, when the bear behaved like one. (Photo by Simone Reinhardt)


Knut was a zoo polar bear born in 2006 in Berlin, a city that long before, had chosen a bear as its emblem. Knut’s story illuminates our troubled and troubling relations with nature. This bear had a rough start. His birth mother Tosca—afflicted, perhaps, by her circus career—rejected the little Eisbär and his twin brother, which four days later succumbed to an infection.

Controversy surrounded Knut from the beginning. His caregiver Thomas Dörflein bathed, bottle-fed, played with, slept next to, put baby oil on, and strummed lullabies on his guitar for the cub when it came out from an incubator. Animal rights activists and even one zoo director thought it would be better to let the cub die or euthanize it rather than have it raised like a human infant, which would lead to neurosis or turn it into an outsider among the zoo’s other bears. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) therefore sued the zoo for “extreme animal mistreatment.” Thousands of Knut supporters in turn e-mailed and wrote letters to keep the cub alive and with its “foster dad.” Children protested in front of the zoo, which stayed the course. (Financial interests could have influenced the decision.) Knut’s first public appearance, like that of famous debutantes, was a media event, with hundreds of journalists from as far away as Uzbekistan vying to snap his picture. A bear of the digital era, Knut had his own blog with first-person entries in several languages and a webcam inside his enclosure. The celebration of his first birthday was broadcast live on German television. The media covered each facet of Knut’s existence as if he were royalty—from teething pains and a yen for croissants and hammocks to the alleged moment of his conception, caught by a zoo visitor on a blurred photo.

The trim, bearded Dörflein, who simply by proximity or his paternal care attracted a female following of his own, commented on less endearing behavior shown by the nation’s sweetheart. “He started to be threatening at a very early stage. Creeping up from behind and pouncing on his prey, he likes to do that with us” [the handlers]. Dörflein, to whom Berlin’s mayor awarded a medal, admitted ambivalent feelings about Knut, feelings familiar to any guardian of infants: “When he’s shat on everything and then bites me because he’s unsettled, it’s enough to blow a fuse sometimes.” A year later, animal welfare campaigners criticized the zoo again, this time for allowing Knut to kill and eat ten carp from the moat around his enclosure.

Whether or not the public was willing to acknowledge its nature, the bear was a bear after all, and it behaved like one.

Eventually, Knut had a seizure and drowned at the age of four while facing an audience of hundreds. An autopsy revealed the cause of death to be encephalitis from an autoimmune disease. Despite his diminishing cuteness (and thereby, marketability), the adolescent bear still had a following. The outpouring of grief turned vitriolic when the city’s Museum of Natural History presented to the Berliners a life-size sculpture wearing their beloved Knut’s pelt. A spokeswoman stressed its artistic and educational value. “It’s important to make clear we haven’t had Knut stuffed,” she tried to appease the public.

Ultimately, the key to understanding Knutmania—and the appeal of polar bear cubs in children’s books and eco-campaigns—can be found in “the cute factor.” In this context it is revealing that the committee in charge of selecting the design for a Knut statue for the Berlin Zoo decided it had to show cuddly Knut, not the delinquent adolescent. The material posed a further challenge. It was difficult to capture the cub’s fuzz and playfulness in bronze. Even years after his death, people leave flowers at a memorial statue of Germany’s most famous, most treasured bear. The public, marking their bond, also commissioned adjacent gravestones for Knut and his caregiver, Dörflein.

Who, really, is immune to the charms of these tots, their cuffing and wrestling matches, the tipsy-sailor gait, the mewling, stub-nosed, button-eyed somersaulting, or nipping at mom’s heels? Who would want them to lose their sea-ice home?

The Austrian Nobel-Prize-winning researcher of animal behavior Konrad Lorenz first surmised in 1949 that we strongly respond to physical features and behavior of the mammalian young, not just those of our own species. A shortened nose, big eyes, a disproportionately large head, round and soft body features paired with playfulness or curiosity turn us all gooey inside. It has since been proven that cuteness triggers nurturing instincts in adults, and the urge to protect. Recent research suggests that pictures of puppies or babies stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain that are also aroused by sex, drugs, or a good dinner. As an evolutionary adaptation, this preference for immature traits makes parents care for their offspring; our paternal and maternal feelings now could affect the survival of polar bears.

Walt Disney’s documentary White Wilderness (1958)—known for its staged lemming “suicide” scenes—delighted Baby Boomers with a polar bear cub tumbling down an icy slope (also possibly staged), one of the earliest cinematic examples of exploiting the polar bear’s cuteness. The theme can be traced from that scene to the BBC’s 2011 mini-series Frozen Planet, narrated by Sir Richard Attenborough. Its episodes are structured along the seasonal round of polar bears, with a bombastic soundtrack and subtly anthropomorphized, with the requisite shots of bear cub antics.

As nature documentaries and similar artifacts show, popular culture largely confines polar bears to limited scripts, to parts subordinate to our own. The bear is roly-poly immature, maternal, or else a combative male. These, of course, are stereotypical roles in the modern nuclear family. In a socio-economic context, the bear functions as marketing tool and political rallying point.

What further explains Knut’s hold on us? Biologists such as E.O. Wilson claim that an attraction to other life forms has lain embedded in our genes since animals shaped hominid nature on Africa’s steppes; hunter-gatherers acknowledge this debt with respect. Evolutionary psychologists also warn us that we neglect this relationship at the cost of societal dysfunction. To further complicate matters, this innate drive (“biophilia”) can manifest as the opposite: a dark urge, born of greed or fear, to abuse and eradicate our brethren-on-earth. Be they dachshunds or Komodo dragons, head lice or butterflies, cobras or Siamese cats—these others leave few people unmoved. To understand how Knut and his kind came to live in our midst and our minds is to understand human nature.

Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.

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