Sweet dreams, Schnute

Today, October 12, Berlin said goodbye to its last-ever "city bear" – a 34-year-old named Schnute, kept in a special cage in Mitte. Read about the controversy that marked her last few years of life in this feature from our July-August issue.

Image for Sweet dreams, Schnute
Photo by Rosalind O’Connor

Schnute was Berlin’s last surviving city bear – the remnant of an odd tradition of keeping living versions of the city’s mascot in a pit near the Märkisches Museum in Mitte. On Monday, October 12, the 34-year-old furry lady was put to sleep, ending both the “city bear” legacy and a years-long controversy over the state of Schnute’s health and happiness. In our July-August issue, we visited Schnute and talked to the “friends” battling for the old bear’s well-being.

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend told me she had seen a bear in Köllnischer Park, right behind Märkisches Museum, where she and her colleagues eat lunch. “Huh? Is there a circus in town?” I asked. “No, he lives there – on a small, enclosed island in the park, all alone,” she said. The odd image of a lonely, sad bear in the park prompted a quick search for “Berlin bear” online. A flurry of articles from April 2015 confirmed my suspicion: “Animal rights activist requests euthanasia of city bear.”

Dressed in bear costumes, six activists climbed a 10m ladder up to the roof of the cage. They weren’t going to come down until Schnute and Maxi were given a new home.

The brown bear – a 34-year-old female named Schnute – was apparently in such miserable health that she ought to be put to sleep. An activist named Stefan Klippstein claimed that the poor beast had lost a lot of weight, had wounds on her fur and could only drag herself a few metres. According to another article, though, veterinarian Maria Elena Kaschubat from the German animal protection office saw “no urgent need for action”, saying Schnute presented all the characteristics of well-being for a captive bear her age. 

I was puzzled. Why would the animal rights activist want the city bear euthanised when it was supposedly in good health? “Did it look sick or unhappy?” I further quizzed my girlfriend. “I don’t know… What does an unhappy bear look like?” Good question. I needed to see Schnute for myself, before it was too late.

The zookeeper

The next day I rode down Märkisches Ufer along the Spree through pouring rain, until I saw the sign: Bärenzwinger. Like Zwang (force), I thought as I approached the bear’s cage: a 450sqm oval racetrack-shaped facility with a square, frond-covered building in the centre and a bush-shrouded fence around it. There was no one in sight around the bush, and no bear to be seen on the other side of the mulch-filled moat enclosing the island. I went up to a woman with a garbage container walking towards a gate in the fence. “Do you know Schnute?“ I asked. “Yes,” she replied, looking slightly annoyed from under the hood of her raincoat. “I’ve known her for 22 years.” 

For the last two decades, she and a colleague have spent 10 hours a day at the kennel feeding and attending to Schnute, keeping the cage tidy and – the most time-consuming task – answering questions from nosy visitors. These days, the most asked question is “Where is the bear?” the zookeeper said with a half-smile. But when I inquired about Schnute’s actual health, her smile vanished. No, she does not see any reason to put Schnute to sleep and she’s tired of people “always knowing better”. She’s had her “Schnauze voll” (has had it “up to here”) of the press and their “nonsense”, and refuses to be mentioned by name or quoted in any specific way. That’s when Schnute suddenly appeared from her 10sqm concrete shelter, looking like she’d just awoken from hibernation.

The last city bear

Schnute stuck her big snout in the air in a slow motion, shook her somewhat threadbare fur and started to circle the grounds very slowly, back and forth, snuffling and smelling the trees, seemingly enjoying the summer rain. These days, the heat mostly keeps her indoors, the zookeeper told me, to visitors’ great disappointment. “They want to see her but when they finally do, they complain about how terrible it is to keep a single bear in captivity.” Granted, it’s hard to ignore that time has taken its toll on Schnute. But 34 is an almost biblical age for a bear – they usually die in their twenties in captivity, and rarely reach 10 in the wild. Perhaps the Bärenzwinger in Köllnischer Park makes for not too shabby a life after all. The zookeeper compared Schnute to a 90-year-old lady. “Would it be all right to euthanise her just because she’s old?”, she asked rhetorically. 

Schnute is undoubtedly a real wonder of captive nature, and she’s lived quite a life to show for it. Born in 1981 in a small zoo in the East German town of Staßfurt, Schnute (“pout”), named so by vote of Berliners in a newspaper survey, and her brother Taps became the third generation of bears to reside in the Bärenzwinger since it opened in 1928. By 1990 the pair had a total of 12 cubs, most of whom were given to zoos; only firstborn daughter Maxi stayed with them in the pit. As brother Taps fell seriously ill in 1990 and was put down, Tilo, another male bear, moved in and quickly became a favourite with the public.

In 1991 though, the bear pit was threatened with closure – the new director of the Tierpark (the zoo in former East Berlin), the official owner of the kennel at the time, claimed the necessary restructuring could not be financed. But Berliners protested, wrote letters to politicians and newspapers and donated money: they wanted to keep their beloved bears. The Berlin Senat took over the cost, and the kennel was handed over to the district of Mitte in 1993. Public support reached a high in 1994, when Schnute and Tilo had triplets – who were soon taken away, too.

The bears’ best friends

That same year, on November 10, the non-profit association Berliner Bärenfreunde e.V. (“Berlin Bear Friends”) was founded with the goal of protecting the Berlin bear as the city’s coat of arms – and with it, the Bärenzwinger in Köllnischer Park. They revived the old tradition of celebrating the Berlin city bears’ birthdays and many Berliners brought fruits and gifts for the bears while the press, radio and television reported on the cheerful event.

But meanwhile, the triplets were removed and years went by with just the “old” bear family to entertain visitors. In 2007, Tilo became severely ill and was put to sleep, and his death signalled a shift in mainstream support towards the bears in Köllnischer Park. In 2010 the association decided to stop celebrating the bears’ birthdays “in consideration of their age,” says current Berliner Bärenfreunde chairman Christa Junge. But according to Junge, they also “don’t want to add fuel to the fire that the activists have lit” by bringing too much attention to the bear kennel.

Animal rights organisations have been criticising the bear enclosure for decades, but none have been as persistent as the Berliner Bärenbündnis (Berlin bear alliance), founded in October 2012 by a number of animal welfare organisations under the motto “Freiheit für Maxi und Schnute”. Within their first month of existence, they demonstrated in front of the kennel dressed in bear costumes, caused nationwide headlines, pressed charges against official veterinarians and collected 23,000 signatures for the liberation of Schnute and her daughter.

On November 20, 2012 at the break of day, six activists from the alliance – dressed in bear costumes as per usual – climbed a 10m ladder up to the roof of the cage. Twenty minutes later, every journalist and photographer in town was at the scene. The message from the trespassers’ spokesman, Stefan Klippstein, was clear: they weren’t going to come down until the district councillor responsible for the bear kennel found a new home for Schnute and Maxi. Eventually, the police accessed the roof via crane and brought down the activists. The alliance offered to take over transportation of the bears to Johannismühle Wildpark through public funding, but the bears stayed put.

In August 2013, Schnute’s daughter Maxi died from organ failure at the age of 27. Hundreds of people showed up at the Bärenzwinger with flowers to mourn the loss. The district council of Mitte considered relocating the 32-year-old bereaved mother and lonely survivor, but ultimately decided to rebuild and enlarge the kennel in Köllnischer Park instead. The decisive innovation: the moat that runs around the enclosure as a boundary was filled with mulch, for Schnute to walk around on in the last days of her life. The pond was also enlarged, giving more space for Schnute to bathe.

The conversion of the enclosure cost €21,000 and was completed in the fall of 2014. By now Schnute was the lucky tenant of a 450sqm space, far above the standards set by the Federal Department of Food and Agriculture, which require 500sqm per three bears. Remember Knut? The celebrity polar bear’s reserve in the Zoologischer Garten was just 300sqm.

The lone crusader

And here we are. Schnute is still alive and “doing well” in her remodelled home, according to an official statement by Carsten Spallek, district councillor for urban development, on April 9, 2015: “The state of health is commensurate with the age of the bear. Signs of arthritis can be seen in her gait and have already been closely monitored by a veterinarian for months.”

But while everyone, including the Berliner Bärenbündnis, agrees that any plans for future resettlement of Schnute have expired, there’s still a dispute as to whether she should be put to sleep. The most vocal proponent of euthanasia? Stefan Klippstein, the same bear-costumed protester who organised many of the Bärenbundnis’ early demonstrations. 

When I meet Klippstein by the bear pit on a sunny Friday morning, he tells me he withdrew from the Bärenbundnis, “because they don’t tell the truth and are afraid of ruining their image. They too wish to give Schnute peace, but are afraid to express it publicly.” Unlike Schnute’s caretaker, Klippstein – who also has a background as a zookeeper – is more than happy to be quoted. The tabloid press have him on speed dial for whenever they need a good story on animal rights violations. He claims to have the “fur mafia” on his back and that he has been banned from going to Circus Krone.

He also caused a scene when he entered KaDeWe’s food hall dressed as a lobster in protest of the live boiling of their shellfish (the department store no longer sells freshly boiled lobster). Currently, he is preparing to go undercover as a beggar with a dog in order to expose Romanian and Bulgarian dog-begging in Berlin – hoping for a ban like in the cities of Munich and Schwerin. 

With regards to Schnute, there’s nothing more he can do. Shortly after he withdrew from the Berliner B.renbündnis, Klippstein wrote a complaint to the Veterinary Office Berlin-Mitte with the assessment that Schnute’s suffering is so obvious that she must be put down immediately. “The monotony and small space in which Schnute moves has made her mentally ill. Demented and disillusioned,” he explains. Klippstein’s old organisation has since put out an official press statement stressing their discontent with him. They do not recommend euthanasia. 

“They are afraid to be seen as bear killers, just like Carsten Spallek is afraid to,” Klippstein told me. “The city council always said old people can’t leave the old people’s home, but this ‘personification’ of the animal is exactly the problem.” Oddly enough for the man who climbed the roof of the kennel dressed as a bear, Klippstein thinks it is the euthanasia opponents who are anthropomorphising Schnute. Says Klippstein: “It’s no different than when your old cat gets sick. Let’s relieve Schnute from her suffering.” 

It struck me that Klippstein and the zookeeper I’d met the first time I went to the kennel are equally fed up with the humanising of Schnute. They just strongly disagree when it comes to Schnute’s state of health and what to do about it. Personally, I didn’t notice any sadness or pain in the bear’s eyes. She seemed satisfied and happy enough given the circumstances. But what do I know? 

Before we leave the kennel, Klippstein looks at his phone, surprised. “The bear in my hometown just died,” he explains. Freiburg’s last bear, a 29-year-old named Joschi, was put to sleep that very same day. Meanwhile, Schnute will spend another summer in her lifelong Berlin home. But by wintertime, there might no longer be a bear in Köllnischer Park.

Originally published in issue #140, October 2015.