Life's no picnic for Zurich's teddy bears

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The Independent Online

Switzerland's financial capital traditionally counters its grey image by filling its streets in summer with "civic art". Its life-size, gaily decorated cows were imitated in cities around the world. But there is controversy over the latest choice: teddy bears.

Switzerland's financial capital traditionally counters its grey image by filling its streets in summer with "civic art". Its life-size, gaily decorated cows were imitated in cities around the world. But there is controversy over the latest choice: teddy bears.

Apart from the fact that bears are the symbol of Zurich's arch-rival - the country's capital, Berne - the appearance of 633 teddies has led to kidnappings, thefts and bizarre rows on issues ranging from Sunday shopping to sadomasochism and the state of Sino-Swiss relations.

The 5ft plastic models are identical in shape but individually painted by artists. There are bears in traditional Alpine costume, punk bears, a Baywatch bear (overlooking the lake), a Bearlock Holmes and a "Bearcelona" in the style of Gaudi. Two were deemed unacceptable, however. One was a dominatrix bear kitted out with a mask, thigh boots, a whip and handcuffs. The other, sponsored by an animal rights organisation, was confined to a tiny cage with a tube protruding from its midriff to highlight the plight of bears in Chinese bile-production farms.

This was vetoed for being too political and an "affront to the Chinese state". Both were promptly given asylum on private property, with the Chinese bear adorning a hotel, causing a travel agency to divert a party of sensitive Chinese tourists to another establishment.

To mark the start of Teddy Summer, the city authorities exceptionally allowed shops to open on a Sunday. Members of a shop workers' trade union attempted to protest by kidnapping 20 bears for a "day out". Notes were to be left on the empty plinths declaring: "Today's our day off, and we're having a lovely Sunday. Back this evening." But while four disappeared, five unionists were arrested after being caught in the act of "liberating" teddies.

Other protests have more to do with aesthetics. The grand old man of Swiss painting and sculpture, Gottfried Honegger, 87, denounced the bears as "visual pollution", "pure vulgarity" and "fraudulent", and said that they should be piled up in a city square and burned. That has not happened, but several bears have been daubed with black paint, thrown into the lake or removed altogether, even though they weigh 20kg each and are attached to heavy concrete plinths.

The bears' supporters, however, are as ardent as their detractors. The owner of one stolen bear has offered 1,000 Swiss francs (£430) for its return, and undecorated bears are selling for more than £500. The originals promise to become cult objects to rival the cows, which were subsequently snapped up at auction, and the tourist office expects a million extra visitors to Zurich this summer.

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