by Guro Flinterud
Ph.d. fellow at Animals as Objects and Animals as Signs
Human fascination for animals and celebrity has a long history. In my project, I look at cases where the two are combined: what happens when the fascination for one animal becomes so strong that it is turned into a media celebrity?
Knut with his "Papi", zoo keeper Thomas Dörflein
My main focus is on polar bear Knut, a polar bear born in the Berlin Zoo December 2006, who was rejected by his mother and raised by humans. The story is not exceptional, cubs of many species are hand reared in Zoos all the time, but this particular cub nevertheless made headlines all over the world. Many saw him as a symbolic saviour of the polar bears as species, a symbol of the fight against global warming. To some he was a refuge from daily stress and a symbol of goodness in the world, and to others again he became a symbol of the practices of breeding animals in captivity, a sad example of all that is wrong with our relations with animals.
Through close readings of blogs and newspaper articles as well as interviews with fans, media people and the zoo staff I will trace the many different representations of this animal.
- How do they talk about the animal, the zoo and the hype?
- How might the contrasting views in discussions and depictions help us understand current attitudes towards animals and nature?
I will make a distinction between celebrity culture and fan culture, which goes more or less along the lines of newspaper articles versus blogging. The difference, I suggest, is one of emotional involvement, which has implications for the themes discussed and the words used, and consequently for the depiction of the animal given in the different contexts.
In addition to Knut I will draw on examples of other animal celebrities like the stories of Jumbo the Elephant, who was sold from the London Zoo to Barnum’s circus in USA in 1882, and the Orca Whale Keiko, known from the 1992 movie Free Willy, who was released into the wild in 1999. These examples will help situate the phenomena of animal celebrity and fandom historically, particularly when discussing the impact of the new technologies of information and communication like the Internet, film, TV and photography, but also in relation to current events and ideas.