Why Berlin is in Love with Bears

A while ago I wrote about all the wild animals in the city of Berlin . Foxes, rabbits, boars: Berlin has quite an impressive wildlife. But I forgot to mention one of Berlin’s most important inhabitants: the bear. Even though you don’t have to be afraid of bumping into a grizzly bear on Karl-Marx-Allee, it is impossible to take a trip to Germany’s capital without spotting a bear or two. Let me introduce you to Berlin’s best bears and tell you a little more about Berlin’s love for these furry animals.

So first of all: why bears? Why not foxes or rabbits, animals that actually live in Berlin? The easy explanation: because there’s a bear in Berlin’s coat of arms. But this raises the question once more: why a bear? The truth is that nobody knows. The more research is done, the more confusion arises. It could be that the Berliners chose a bear to honour Albrecht I, nicknamed ‘the Bear’, who according to legend fortified Berlin in the 12th century. It could also be because Berlin pretty much sounds like Bearlin.

Whatever the reason: Berlin is the city of bears now. But where to spot the best bears?

The Prettiest Bears

 

Once you start looking for them, you’ll find them everywhere: the life-sized bear statues, decorated in all possible motifs and colours. I didn’t know until just now, but they’re called ‘Buddy Bears’ and they have been in Berlin since 2001. There are hundreds of them and in the last 15 years some of them have even gone on a world tour. I must say that the one at my ‘home square’, Strausberger Platz, isn’t the prettiest (since it belongs to a bank) but just have a look at this interactive map and you’ll find that there’s one in virtually every corner of the city. My favourites are the embassy’s bears, covered in country-specific prints. Take the one from Egypt, with ancient Egyptian figurines and a pharaoh’s crown. Isn’t this the prettiest bear you’ve ever seen?

The Sportiest Bears

“Hey, wir wollen die Eisbären sehen!” Ice hockey has never really been my sport (and it actually still isn’t), but spotting all the ice hockey fans around the arena every weekend has gotten me quite interested in seeing a match myself one day. The Berliner Eisbären, or the ‘Berlin Polar bears’ are one of Germany’s best ice hockey teams and have been around since 1994, when it was one of the founding member of the German ice hockey league. Not a fan of ice hockey? The American Football team is called the Berlin Bears and so is the cheerleading club, and the foosball team is called Bears Berlin. There truly is a sporty bear for everyone.

The Most Real Bears

Yes, there are actual bears living within the city limits of Berlin, too. And yes, that is in the zoo. Or to be more precise: in the zoos. Berlin has two zoos, one in the former West (Zoologischer Garten) and one in the East (Tierpark). And they are both quite proud of their bears. The Zoologischer Garten has polar bears and sloth bears, whereas the Tierpark has brown bears and, again, polar bears.
Last December it was announced that Berlin will receive two pandas from China in the near future, after the last panda Bao Bao died more than 3 years ago.

The Most Official Bear

The first time I realised I had actually grown to be a true, city-loving Berliner was when I came back from a short trip to Holland and saw the flag on top of the municipal building, the Rotes Rathaus. The flags of my former hometowns are lovely too, such as the sword of Haarlem and the three X’s of Amsterdam, but I must admit that I prefer the little black bear dancing around (or fighting against an unwanted intruder) in the middle of the red flag. It gets even better when you look from up close and see his extremely long tongue dangling out of his mouth. It was at that exact moment, looking at the dancing bear, that I realised I had a new hometown.

The Most Legendary Bear

Knut, the polar bear who stole the hearts of everyone in Berlin – or really of every single one who had the chance to see him in his short life. Rejected by his mother and raised by his keeper, he became a worldwide celebrity. Knut loved being the centre of attention and was never unwilling to put on a little show (without any human forcing him to, don’t get me wrong) for the visitors of the Zoologischer Garten.

Sadly enough, he died at the age of 4 in 2011. Around 600 to 700 visitors witnessed him dying and the city was in mourning. As the mayor of Berlin stated: “We all held him so dearly. He was the star of the Berlin zoos.” Still feel like paying him a last homage? He has been stuffed and mounted, and is now on display in the Naturkundemuseum.

The Disappeared Bears

I’d like to finish with bears that actually aren’t there anymore, to save you from potential disappointment – or to make you happy, in case you’re an animal rights defender. In the very heart of Berlin, next to the Märkisches Museum, is a bear pit. This bear pit (Bärenzwinger in German) was opened in 1939 – quite a strange timing, if you ask me. At first two bears lived in the pit, which consists of hardly more than a big, tile-covered hole in the ground with a platform in the middle.

After World War II it had to be reconstructed and in 1949 it reopened, again with two bears donated by the city of Bern, Switzerland. One of these two bears appeared to be quite fertile and gave birth to no less than 33 cubs. The last two bears that lived there were Schnute and her daughter Maxi, but Maxi died in 2013 and Schnute in 2015. It was decided that, for the sake of animal rights, there will be no new bears. Now it’s just a reminder of this pretty strange tradition of keeping bears in a big trench in the middle of the city.