China would like you to know that sometimes bears are small
and definitely not men wearing bear suits
I have so much else to write about, but I saw this article about a bear that might be a man in a bear suit a Chinese zoo and ended up writing about it during a plane ride. Hope you enjoy, and looking forward to being back on a more semi-regular schedule soon.
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China would like you to know that a bear is not a man wearing a bear suit.
This became an issue when a sun bear, like the one pictured above, gained attention on the Chinese social media site Weibo for standing on its hind legs — just as, say, an unusually miserable summer intern wearing a bear suit in 100+ degree heat might do if they were begging for an ice cold beer.
Speculation spread. Was the bear waving to the crowd in another video, as if it were an unusually sweaty intern waving for the sweet relief of death?
The zoo put out a press release in the voice of “Angela, the Mayan sun bear.”
Some people think I look too human when I stand up. It seems you really don’t understand me. Previously, some visitors even thought I was too petite to be a bear! I want to emphasize again: I am a Malayan sun bear! Not a black bear! Not a dog! A Malayan sun bear!
Isn’t that exactly what a bear would say if it were a man in a bear suit?
Listen, that bear is a bear. Probably. It’s a sun bear, one of the least well known bears. Apparently they sometimes like standing on their hind legs in just the way that meerkats do and also my cat does and also, on a more regular basis, humans do.
This is how zoos are supposed to work, right? We’re supposed to be amazed.
“What the hell is this thing?”
“Is this for real?”
“Are they pulling my leg with this?”
We’re all medieval peasants when it comes to the zoological wonders of the world. Unless you’ve seen one, a rhinoceros and a unicorn seem equally likely.
Anglo-Norman however, seemingly only has the one form, unicorne and was used to refer to both the (mythological) unicorn or any (real) one-horned animal, notably the Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis, which has only one horn whereas the African rhinoceros has two). Anglo-Norman equally has the term monosceros, again used to refer to both the unicorn and the rhinoceros. The medieval descriptions of these animals is quite different than what a modern reader might expect: Monoceros i meint en sum, Ke nus unicorne numum: Cors de cheval, chief ad cervin, Piez d’olifant, cue porcin Pet Phil 689 (The monoceros lives up there, which we call a unicorn: the body of a horse, head of a stag, feet of an elephant, tail of a pig) ; Sachez pur voir, seignurs, qe un est rinoceros, E une autre beste est apellee monoceros […] Monoceros est beste, ceo nous dit dan Solins; Il ad pez d’olifant, de corps est equins; E vont cum lions, del chef est cervins. Un[e] corn[e] ad al front, de la cue est porcins Rom Chev ANTS 6812 and 19 (Know for certain, sirs, what is a rhinoceros and another beast called the monoceros … A monoceros is an animal, as Saladin has told us, which has the feet of an elephant, the body of a horse, which moves like a lion, which has the head of a stag, a horn on its forehead and the tail is porcine.)
— Anglo-Norman Dictionary, “The Word of the Month: The Monosceros and the Unicorn.”
So we have zoos — the smorgasbord of the animal world. A buffet, a sampler plate of what’s on offer in the animal kingdom.
Depending on the zoo, the animals may be taken care of at any level from doting to shabby. They might have side gigs as sperm donors or parents to scientifically important babies.
But day in, day out, they work as models. They showcase everything we’re unlikely to see in the wild ourselves. We’re meant to buy into the importance of nature even as we come to realize how distant we’ve grown from that very same nature.
If I were visiting the sun bear, I might ask the same questions as the commenters on Weibo. Is this standing bear for real? How could I tell?
I might have arrived at the zoo via the subway, or I might have driven and then driven some more around a parking lot, trying to find a space.
The walkways around the zoo are paved for humans.
The bear’s cage bears no resemblance to her natural habitat. If left in the wild, she would have a territory of around 14.8 +/- 6.1 square kilometers, or 5.71 +/- 2.3 square miles. She would have a society, an ecosystem, a life. Even as a solitary bear she would smell other bears, choose a mate, and choose when and where and what to eat.
A zoo is a human environment, built for humans. That’s Ok, that’s what zoos do. We bring animals into our environments, our lives, so that we can learn about them and get invested in them and have exposure to them when otherwise we’d have no idea they existed. That’s important.
But that’s also why the bear speaks to us in that press release. She lives in a human environment, in our world, in our house — why wouldn’t she speak in our voice?
Is she a man in a bear costume? No but also yes. Maybe she’s a little bit of one, a little of the other, and maybe the giraffes are tall men standing on each other’s shoulders in a giraffe costume and the elephants are about six guys in an elephant costume and so on.
When I go to the zoo and I stand in the dim concrete ape house and look into the eyes of the gorilla and hear the roar of the traffic just a hundred meters away, the gorilla looks back. We both know he’s a man in a gorilla costume. He’s a gorilla all right and also he’s mine, he’s ours, we own him, this hybrid creature, this invention.
Please let me know your thoughts on zoos or any other animal interactions you’ve had recently, and I hope you’re having a great end-of-summer, beginning-of-fall time.