Taking a bite out of voter apathy

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Taking a bite out of voter apathy
Pedro the Chimp. Photo: DPA

What do finger-chomping chimps at the zoo have to do with voter apathy in Germany? Roger Boyes, the Berlin correspondent of British daily The Times, has the answer.


For three long years during the 18th century, England fought Spain after the Spanish coastguard sliced off the ear of a UK captain. Put into a jar and held up in the British parliament, it would start what became known as the “War of Jenkins’ Ear.”

Now we have a similarly sensitive case in the German capital. The director of Berlin Zoo, Bernhard Blaszkiewitz, stuck his finger in the monkey cage and had it bitten off by the chimpanzee Pedro.

It could be that Pedro thought it was still asparagus season and confused Blaszkiewitz with tasty Spargel from nearby Beelitz. But it would also be naïve to rule out the possibility that the 28-year-old chimp is in the pay of Neumünster Zoo.

The conspiracy theory among us zoo-watchers is that Neumünster is plotting to have more and more limbs of Blaszkiewitz bitten off by animals bribed with bananas and peanuts until there is not enough of the good director left to defend Berlin’s star attraction the polar bear Knut. One could call it the Armin Meiwes strategy.

The battle for Knut is the most interesting spectacle currently taking place in Germany. Unlike the recent European elections, the story has passion, money, thwarted love and now, thanks to Saint Bernhard’s poor finger, pain.

Those who follow court cases will know that Neumünster Zoo is arguing that Lars, father of Knut, was loaned to Berlin. The deal was that Neumünster would receive the first born cub, then the third-born, then the fifth-born. Berlin could keep the rest; cubs two, four and six.

Since no female bear in her right mind would sleep with Lars, an ursine psychopath, the deal looked like a good one for the Neumünster Zoo. Now it wants cash, or Knut.

But, of course, there would have been no Knut if Blaszkiewitz had not decided to save his life by allowing zookeeper Thomas Dörflein to become his foster father. Above all, Knut would not have become an international cash machine if the Berlin boulevard press had not made a hero out of him.

Vulnerable, rejected by his mother, eternally hungry and in desperate need of applause he was the four-legged version of a boulevard reporter. No wonder that the big-city tabloids took Knut to its heart. Imagine if Knut had been born in Neumünster – he would have made, perhaps, Page 14 of the local newspaper in between the Golden Wedding Anniversary of Herr and Frau Klopstock, and an advertisement for double-glazed windows.

Certainly no-one would have come up with the idea of re-inventing Neumünster as Knut-City.

And this is the point: the Berlin boulevard press has a transformational power that is not seen in any other German city. We may think that BZ and Berliner Kurier are in the hysteria-business but that is to misunderstand these papers: when BZ makes Blaszkiewitz’s finger the top story for two days in a row, it is staying true to its tradition of making a spectacle out of the capital.

In 1906, when the murderer Rudolf Hennig was eluding police for weeks at a time, BZ am Mittag produced day-by-day, minute-by-minute accounts of the police hunt. It was brilliant at train crashes, suicides and daylight robberies. A city as heavy, as concentrated on power, as Berlin needs sensation and a sense of theatre. The boulevard understood quickly that the zoo was an integral part of city life, from impotent pandas to depressed hippos.

What we need now is for the boulevard to turn its gaze on the political bestiary. The turnout of this month’s European Parliament election shows that German politicians have become virtually invisible.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has his girls, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has his expenses scandal, but German politicians are determined to stay in hiding, emerging only to appear on dull talk shows.

Here they resemble the Berlin Zoo’s gnus that sleep all day and show themselves to the public only at feeding time.

Bild is now in Berlin, joining BZ and Kurier: Why aren’t they digging up scandal and sensation about our leaders? Where are the mistresses, the drunken indiscretions?

Thanks to the boulevard Blaszkiewitz and the zoo are permanently in our consciousness. Now is the time to do the same for the Bundestag. If necessary – stick a few of them in the monkey cage. Perhaps they will lose a limb and we’ll lose our political apathy.

For more Roger Boyes, check out his website here.


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