No one knows for sure why Berlin is called the way it is. According to some, it was a homage to “Albrecht the Bear”, the founder of the Brandenburg margraviate in the 1100’s. Reaching farther back in the Slavic roots of this region, the word “berl” means swamp, which is what this region is. The final theory contends that Berlin was named after the German word for bears (Bär) that would have been used for a war song or a celebration anthem. Although it has since been dismissed by linguists it’s the people’s favourite one. And ours.
Bear in mind
History of cities is often obscured by urban legends and popular beliefs and make it next to impossible to find the true answer to that question. It does prove, however, that the history of small folks influences the “real story with a capital H”. Because as soon as Berlin became big enough to have a sigil and coat of arms, the bear was chosen to be the symbol of this smallish burg in the 1200’s. It’s also interesting to see how the city sigil lost its collar and the two eagles of Prussia and Brandenburg dominating it.
And for the city’s 700’s birthday? The city created a bear pit, still visible in Köllnischer park, albeit empty since the euthanasia in 2015 of Schnute, the last bear living in Berlin.
Be that as it may, the bear has been the sigil of Berlin since some 800 years now. It’s literally everywhere. More than 1,200 Berlin buddy bears were introduced all over the city as actionable art pieces, and other older statues guard the city limits. There’s even one guarding the autobahn at the entrance of the city.
Looking for bears
So why? Why a bear when there is no bear for more than 300 km in all directions? As it turns out, this region was very popular with bears before us skinny legged primates arrived on-site. The last bear in the Brandenburg region was shot in 1741 in Stettin, and the last one in Germany in 1838.
Despite its disappearance from the area, the brown bear and its long honey-loving tongue is still one of the most popular symbols of the city. You can find it on beers, on restaurants’ punny names, and in the heart of just about anybody claiming to be a Berliner.
We remember. The demise of this fearsome animal, probably the greatest predator on land, should act as a reminder that extinction happens. Most people agree that leopards, elephants and other great animals should be protected and preserved from poaching, pet trade and other human curses like extinction. The Berlin bear is a symbol that this has already happened.
The real problem lies in our relationship with nature and our refusal to accept cohabitation as a normal process. In recent years, larger predators like brown bears and wolves have been reintroduced in the Alps and the Pyrenees, kindling fierce opposition, including hunting parties by local shepherds.
Reasons beyond flags
Conflict reduction should be an integral part of conservation effort. Without efficient insurance system for livestock losses, proper fencing or monitoring, human settlements and responsible trash management, just to name a few, bears and humans will have a hard time living on the same land.
But on the other hand, these apex predators are enablers of all life around them. Bears contribute to biotic pollination, species regulation and spread seeds far and wide thanks to their omnivorous nature.
In a recent experiment, wolves reintroduced in a national park reestablished a natural order beneficial to virtually all of the members of the ecosystem.
The Berlin bear is the symbol of this city. Freed from its chains, it now protects the city from invaders and greets allies like its own cubs. But it is also a reminder of how far humans have gone in the modification of their environment. We have been so successful at putting nature under control that we have lost even our most beloved symbols.
In line with these efforts, Plan A strives for a return of nature within the city. The aim of this company is not to reintroduce bears in the city’s pit but to teach the population to care for wildlife, nature and our planet. If you believe that nature should be a part of the city’s life, consider making a donation on the website. It’s also full of information about how to become a little greener every day.
The recent successes in reintroducing ‘dangerous’ species have proven the ecological and symbolical value of keeping these large animals in the wild. It’s time we reconsider our approach to these so-called predators. A wolf hasn’t killed a human in Europe in almost a century. But it has balanced ecosystems beyond all hopes. Wildlife and its reconciliation with humans is one of Plan A’s six causes. And consider this, if these beautiful animals weren’t there to give us symbols, we could end up like the small town of Chicken, Alaska, which surely hit the jackpot of the totem animal.