Why our obsession with animals is schizophrenic


The pandas are coming!

Trees for climbing, an artificial river, species-appropriate plants - preparations for Chinese pandas Jiao Qing (pictured) and Meng Meng have been in high gear at Berlin's Zoological Garden. The Panda Plaza is now up and running after the two arrived on a first-class flight from China June 24. Such luxury for animals has not always been the case. Here's a look back at the history of German zoos.


Germany's first zoo

Professor of zoology Martin Hinrich Lichtenstein was so enthused with the Zoological Garden in London that he wanted to build one himself. In 1841, he was able to convince Friedrich Wilhelm IV to do it. The King of Prussia decreed that some 22 hectares (54 acres) be sectioned off from Berlin's Tiergarten and turned into Germany's first Zoological Garden.


The first animals move in

By 1845, two coatis, three Arctic foxes, a red jackel, two badgers, 24 monkeys, and three bears from Siberia were living there. In 1846, lions and tigers were moved into their own building. The first elephant came onto the scene in 1857, in 1861 the first zebra. Yet sadly, there was a high animal mortality rate.


Vienna as a role model

The Schönbrunn Zoo in Vienna took a completely different and much grander approach. In 1906, the first elephant to be conceived in a zoo was born. By 1914, Schönbrunn was one of the largest zoos in the world, with 3,500 animals from 717 species. It became a role model for the Berlin Zoo. Today, Schönbrunn is one of the oldest existing zoos in the world and allegedly the most visited in Europe.


Royal park as a predecessor

Many zoos sprung up in German-speaking countries in the second half of the 19th century. After Berlin, Frankfurt, Cologne, Hamburg, Basel, and Leipzig followed suit. But Prussian King Wilhelm IV had already created his own wildlife park back in 1571, which he used not only for hunting - he also allowed nature researchers to live there.


Building conservation versus animal preservation

Many compounds, such as this Antelope House in Berlin's Zoological Garden, were built in the 19th century and attempted to reflect the exotic origins of the animals. But as aesthetically appealing as they may have been, they were not always species-appropriate. Still, they cannot be altered because building conservation laws stand in the way.


Education and relaxation

In the 20th century, zoos popped up all over Germany, and aquariums opened up as well. Monkey parks, ocean parks and bird parks became a craze, and people could even drive their cars or take the bus through safari parks. With the economic boom of the 50s and 60s in Germany, even smaller cities could open zoos or animal parks.


Rage in the machine

Post-war Germany saw a boom in zoos, with people eager to witness exotic animals. Zoos became living classrooms, but a remotely species-appropriate way of keeping the animals wasn't a priority. Cages and trenches separated lions, tigers and elephants from visitors. It wasn't until the 1970s that research revealed more insight into the psychology of animals, and zoos began altering their designs.


Back to nature

A milestone in zoo design are panorama areas such as the one Carl Hagenbeck built in Hamburg. Rather than being stuck in cages in a systematic way, animals are kept according to "continents." Lions live near zebras, giraffes, and elephants, for instance, in the "Africa" region of the zoo. Green zones at the Cologne Zoo (pictured) ensure that animals are kept similarly to their natural habitat.


The future of zoos

Small cages and concrete pens are becoming more and more a thing of the past. Yet how zoos develop in the future depends on smart management. Some zoos, such as in Frankfurt, for instance, have decided to close their elephant houses. As a small zoo in the inner city with just 11 hectares (27 acres), it simply could not provide the animals with enough space.


Zoo research

Zoos breed species and aim to return them to the wild. They are also involved in environmental conservation and educate visitors about their habitats. But zoo opponents say that to keep certain animals species alive only in zoos is unethical. Instead, focus should be placed on keeping their natural habitats intact. Pictured is a newborn platypus named Mackenzie.


Entertainment venues

Zoos in Germany get more visitors than sporting events. Nowadays, they're more like entertainment parks with adventure playgrounds, themed restaurants and merry-go-rounds. A little farm at the Cologne Zoo recently opened, where visitors can pet cows and goats. Zoos are now irreplaceable, not only for visitors to reconnect with nature, but also to preserve certain endangered animals.

Chinese pandas have made their way to Berlin. How sweet! Or not? Best-selling German writer and philosopher Richard David Precht believes our relationship to animals is contradictory.

Berlin's Zoological Garden received two pandas from the Chinese government. The couple - the female Meng-Meng and male Jiao Qing - landed in Berlin on June 24 and were formally handed over on July 5. Many Germans have appeared ecstatic about the event. Others, like German philosopher Richard David Precht, are skeptical about the fascination with "cute" animals. DW spoke with the best-selling author, whose works have been translated into dozens of languages.

DW: Mr. Precht, are you looking forward to Meng-Meng und Jiao Qing? It's a very unusual visit.

Richard David Precht: "Looking forward to it" is perhaps not quite the appropriate expression. But I do think it is a good thing for the zoo to have been granted the bid to host the pandas, since very few zoos outside of China are home to them.

The Berlin Zoo has been busy building and installing air-conditioning systems, places with shade, a little river, some places to retreat to, and so on. The pandas are supposed to have a good life in Berlin. But is it really okay to transport endangered animals in this way?

Publizist und Philosoph Richard David Precht

Philosopher Richard David Precht is also a writer and moderator

That is not the problem. There are all sorts of animals that are on the "endangered" list, but which are saved from going extinct by living in zoos, among other things. Pandas are not necessarily at the top of that list, but zoos nowadays - as compared to the ominous role they played in the past - are making their contribution in that area.

There are more Siberian tigers in zoos than there are in the taiga.

And now these pandas are functioning as political ambassadors…

This has been around for a while, the so-called "panda politics." That dates back to Deng Xiaoping [Eds.: paramount leader of China from 1978-1989]. The Berlin Zoo received two pandas once before, or rather, former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt did. That's nothing new. And for China to show its more sympathetic side in this way should not count for nothing.

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You wrote a book about animal ethics entitled "On Animals - Animal Rights and Human Limitation." On the one hand, you say that we mercilessly exploit animals - for instance, in factory farming and by eating meat. On the other hand, we mollycoddle our pets - dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and even pandas. How does that fit together?

And now we're spending millions of euros to construct a panda compound. And it's true: That is major social-cultural schizophrenia! And I will not tire of denouncing that. But that's nothing against the pandas; it's very much against factory farming.

A long, long time ago, when we were still hunters and gatherers and still saw ourselves as a part of nature, did we respect animals more?

Buchcover Tiere denken von Richard David Precht

The author says that "animals think"

Yes, in what we are familiar with about indigenous cultures, such as folk groups who live in the rain forest, or what we can interpret from ancient Egyptian religion: Before people began systematically keeping animals, they had a much more respectful attitude toward them, because they were not considered a part of the environment, but as our contemporaries.

And now we dominate nature, also through technology. Was this a bad course for animals?

Yes, it has been a largely bad course. But I can't see anything wrong with a cultural institution such as a middle-class zoo that later helps to preserve certain animals.

You said earlier: "The more human beings dominate over nature, the more soulless those mastered over appear to them."

That is really the case. The more violence one wields over something, the less respect one has for it. We see a long course of it in the history of humankind.

And monotheistic religions can't even help out there?

No. Monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Islam or Judaism have significantly contributed to the objectification of animals.

And human beings thus become the yardstick to be measured against. And animals become objects?

Exactly. People become the exclusive creatures. Christian salvific history is not about animals. It's about human beings.

Do you believe we need to finally resolve our relationship with animals?

Yes. And we are doing so. When you realize that there are one million vegans in Germany and nearly eight million vegetarians, then you can presume that a huge change in thinking is occurring.

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In which direction?

Toward more sensitivity in how we treat animals and what we consider normal. That people take it less for granted when thousands of pigs are kept in stalls together, or that people eat meat at all - I consider that ethical evolution.

You write that animals suffer and that they have a consciousness. Should that determine our relationship to animals?

Yes, but in my opinion, it should also determine a fundamental fascination with nature. I think we do neither ourselves, nor nature a favor by so mercilessly objectifying it.

What do you think you will think when you stand in front of the Berlin panda couple Meng-Meng and male Jiao Qing?

I will look at the compound very closely - at its aesthetics and how the animals are kept. But the Berlin Zoo is in very good hands, so I'm quite optimistic.

Richard David Precht is a German philosopher, journalist and author and one of the most famous intellectuals in German-speaking countries. His best-selling books, such as "Who Am I? And If So, How Many? - A Journey Through Your Mind," have been translated into more than 40 different languages.