We’re All Mammals

download.jpgMemoirs of a Polar Bear by Japanese/German author Yoko Tawada is a study into both what it is to be human and also into the often strained relationships between humans and other mammals. It narrates the history (memoirs?) of three generations of polar bears and the humans they interact with, whether in the circus, at the zoo, or at an international conference. The polar bears themselves are at one time creatures of the great northern wilds and at another time balancing on a large blue ball and even, without any anthropomorphic explanation, excelling at a corporate “desk” job and attending important conferences around the world.

Who knew that a polar bear could write a best-seller based on memoirs from the circus?

Although I felt the polar bear vs. homo sapiens analogy was overly extended and therefore somewhat tedious, I did enjoy the third part of the novel where an abandoned new born polar bear is raised in the zoo by a trio of quite praiseworthy humans. What made me stop and think was when the bear had grown too large and was summarily assigned to an enclosure, losing the freedom and intellectual stimulation it had enjoyed while growing up and losing the interaction with humans who truly cared.

Do humans enjoy other species only as long as they’re cute and cuddly?

Was this an indictment against zoos or they way the dominant species—human—treats other species? Several times during the novel it is apparent that there may be no right or wrong answer to how animals are treated but it is increasingly obvious that animals, both higher and lower animals, have rights too.

This idea of animals having human rights is in the news today with chimpanzees being defended for their rights in the courts.

images.jpgI expect that there is a reasonable compromise somewhere between the Frank Buck world and the vegan/Jainists chomping grass and skipping over tiny ants. Circuses are rightfully closing, zoos are becoming less a penitentiary for animals and more a learning habitat that is instrumental in preserving species. Polar bears have become symbolic of the destruction of the planet through man-made global warming.

But who knows, maybe polar bears will write the final memoirs of the late, not-so-great human species.

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