Traditionally, it’s us Brits who get the reputation for going all sentimental about animals. It is sometimes said of British drivers that they would rather swerve into a lamp-post than risk hitting a squirrel. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, it is regularly pointed out, was originally formed as an offshoot of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. And note that the former never received the honour of being allowed to call itself a “royal” society.
But the British love of animals is as nothing compared to the German obsession with all creatures great and small. Only the Germans could really make a media sensation out of a polar bear, for example. When Knut died, I almost expected there to be calls for a state funeral, so great was the outpouring of grief.
But Knut was soon forgotten, because along came Heidi, the cross-eyed opossum. I don’t know how many opossums there are in German zoos at the moment (the results of the latest opossum census are not currently available to me, chiefly because I can’t be bothered to look for them), but I’m guessing that it’s a few. None of them ever get any attention (they’re the sort of animals you politely look at on your way to the lion enclosure), except for this one Heidi, on the grounds that she looks — or rather, looked — as if she was trying to look up her own nostrils.
She was put down last September, suffering from the effects of old age, and at the time Leipzig Zoo promised that she would be stuffed and mounted so that — get this — members of the public could “express their grief”. Maybe that’s the difference between a dictatorship and a democracy: a dictatorship is where a deceased leader lies in state so that people can shuffle past and pay their last respects; in a democracy, it’s the same, but with marsupials.
But now comes heart-breaking news: the announcement that the zoo has now given up trying to stuff the ex-opossum. It wasn’t just the “technical scale” of the project, but that the zoo wanted to “preserve positive memories” of the creature.
The mind boggles. Was the taxidermist really that bad?