A slice of Pizza

The plight of Pizza the polar bear is a sad reflection of our relationship with wildlife and nature, writes Martin Rowe

Pizza, “the world’s saddest polar bear”, is to be granted at least a temporary reprieve from the display case in which he lives in the Grandview shopping mall in Guangzhou, southern China. This follows a global outcry, a one-million-signature petition, and the concerted efforts of fifty animal advocacy organisations in China.

This move is welcome news to all people who care about animal welfare in general and Pizza’s wellbeing in particular. Pizza was exhibiting what ethologists call “stereotypical behavior” – pacing back and forth, “shaking his head from side to side, and sniffing and pawing at an air vent.”

In short, whether from boredom or stress at having camera bulbs flash in his eyes or the windows to his enclosure banged upon by visitors, Pizza appeared to be losing his mind.

Pizza’s plight is not unique. Even in more formal zoos and aquaria, social creatures used to roaming far, climbing high, or flying aloft are frequently kept – alone – in spaces too small to meet their basic needs, where they receive either too much attention of the wrong sort or indifference or neglect. Like Pizza, these animals circle their bare enclosures endlessly or spend their days with their faces turned to the wall in despair.

For now, Pizza is being transferred to the zoo in Tianjin, near Beijing, where he was born. The mall’s spokesperson says that once renovations are made to the bear’s enclosure, he’ll be back. Qin Xiaona, director of the Beijing-based Capital Animal Welfare Association and one of the main voices speaking out on Pizza’s behalf has said of the three-year-old bear’s reprieve: “It’s a good decision, the right decision for Pizza, but it’s not the end. Temporary is not good enough.”

She’s correct – and not just for Pizza. What he and the 500 other species that Grandview houses deserve is room to roam, a chance to be with their conspecifics, and an opportunity to express their natural behaviours – to seek a mate, hunt, hide, and play; in other words, to be free.

If, for whatever reason, they cannot survive in the wild, they should be retired to sanctuaries in regions that are climatically and geographically appropriate.

Nature commodified

However, it’s what we curious, acquisitive, bipedal primates want and need that baffles and intrigues me. Across societies, we’re drawn to charismatic wild animals, like bears, lions, wolves, tigers, eagles, among others. These top predators have wielded their talismanic power over our imaginations from perhaps before the time our species came to consider itself separate from (and superior to) them. We crave their physical energy, their “otherness,” their fearsome strength and uncommon grace as well as their more highly developed senses (compared to ours), like smell and hearing.

Yet, whether these animals are confined in zoos and aquaria or in this particular shopping mall, we desire that proximity only to remove everything powerful and wild from them. We want them to acknowledge us, but not in a manner that demands anything of us, other than our entertainment, amusement, and our desire to exert control over them in their captive state.

Grandview’s placing of Pizza and other animals in its shopping emporium is not merely marketing sleight-of-hand. It’s a symbol of global consumer society’s objectification and commodification of nature. In this context, animals and nature only possess value if they’re monetized.

Pizza, whose very name describes his identity as something consumable, becomes yet another item to be displayed amid all the goods for sale in the mall. He’s another product shoppers can spend a bemused, delighted, or uninterested minute or two with, before moving on to another diversion.

Grandview installed Pizza in his ersatz winter landscape because it was worried about losing shoppers to online retailers. In other words, it needed a slice of the natural world to tear people away from the internet to actually visit the mall. (How many other malls in China or elsewhere will seek to do the same?) But what do most people do when confronted with the analogue, breathing, sensate bear? They resort to yet another screen to consign that live being to the camera in their phones, from Pizza’s real existence in his false reality to theirs.

The ultimate irony may be that Pizza’s solitary vigil in a diminished landscape echoes the climate crisis’s now iconic representation of a lone polar bear on a diminishing ice floe. In that sense, Pizza’s vanishing into the virtual world portends the disappearance of millions of other species because of humanity’s collective failure so far to act decisively to constrain greenhouse gas emissions.

Qin Xiaona’s observation that “temporary is not enough” could resonate far beyond the particular fates of Pizza and other captive animals like him. It could be a rallying call to hold the line at, or even reverse, our seemingly voracious destruction of this singular blue planet that’s home to us and millions of other species. They, like us, need a safe space free from objectification and destruction; where we can all breathe and be the unmediated, unrecorded animals that we once were and could be again.