Germany's Polar Bear Cub Quandary

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Female polar bear Vera carries one of its cubs in an enclosure at the zoo in Nuremberg.

Germany just can't get enough of little polar bears, but its zookeepers seem unsure about how best to deal with them. Earlier this week the country's tabloid press agonized over the deaths of two tiny Eisbär cubs in a Nuremberg zoo, who were presumably eaten by their inexperienced mother, Vilma, after zookeepers decided not to intervene. Then on Wednesday, a fresh round of photographs and videos revealed that a third cub at the same zoo had been "rescued" by zookeepers after another mother, Vera, showed signs of rejecting her offspring. "Sweet, sweeter, sweetest!" cooed the daily, Die Welt over photos of the still nameless rescued cub, who was born five weeks ago. The decision to intervene came after the death of the two other cubs triggered a broader debate in Germany about the ethics of allowing nature to take its course in the decidedly unnatural environment of a public zoo.

Nuremberg's zoo directors were widely criticized after the first cubs' deaths were splashed across front pages. The zoo's deputy director insisted that the laissez-faire approach had a reason: "If you don't let the mothers practice, they'll never learn how to bring up their cubs," he said. But in an interview with TIME, Nuremberg zoo director Dag Encke suggested the case was not that simple. "As long as the mothers are behaving well towards the baby, we wouldn't interfere," he explained. "But only in the second case was it clear that the mother was acting strangely." In Vilma's case, Encke said that the zookeepers didn't have a timely indication that the cubs were in danger: they are reared inside a darkened cave, and the zookeepers do not enter to see them until they are six weeks old. Despite an infrared camera and sound recording device inside the cave, the zookeepers noticed too late that the cubs were no longer making any noises. Only after they heard the mother banging against the bars did they investigate, finding no sign of the young. Polar bears often eat their cubs if they believe they are ill, though zookeepers have no clear picture if that instinct is what motivated the mother bear.

The case of the second mother bear, Vera, was different, Encke explained. She was seen pacing nervously, throwing her cub outside the cave and trying to bury it. She appeared to grow more agitated when a group of photographers arrived. "We were 100% sure that the baby was going to die if we didn't take it away from her," Encke said. "This would have been a death verdict for the cub."

Vera has since been photographed gazing through the bars at the young cub she can no longer reach. The zookeepers are pondering whether to bring another adult bear, possibly the cub's father, Felix, to the zoo to help Vera overcome her loss, and are seeking another small bear to serve as a companion for the rescued cub. But while the intervention saved the cub's life, it leaves some observers far from happy. "This development is not good for the principle of wildlife conservation in our zoo," said Alexandra Foghammar, spokesperson for the city of Nuremberg. "Now the cub will not grow up to act in a natural way, just as the mother lacked the experience to bring up a cub. "

This is not the first time that Germans have fallen prey to the attractions of a baby bear. Almost exactly one year ago, a mother polar bear in Berlin's central zoo also rejected her offspring. The cub, christened Knut, went on to become a media celebrity, gracing the cover of Vanity Fair and inspiring a blog devoted to his daily routine. A Hollywood producer, Ash Shah, recently offered the Berlin zoo $100,000 for the rights to his life story, plus a profit share for the zoo of up to $5 million if the movie does well. Negotiations are still underway. Even without that deal, Knut's presence has earned the zoo millions of dollars in extra admission and merchandising fees. Nuremberg's zookeepers say that their initially cool response to saving the endangered cubs was meant to avoid another round of "knutmania"; one official insisted that baby giraffes were just as cute. But the reaction to the first photos of the new baby bear suggests that the fascination has hardly faded in Germany, whatever Hollywood decides to do.
With reporting by Stephanie Kirchner