April 20, 2007

Krazy for Knut

In case this story has not made it to the States yet, please allow me to introduce you to “Knut, der kleine Eisbär,” who is currently taking Germany by storm. Hardly a day goes by without a story about the baby polar bear on the evening news, and polls say that 58% of Germans follow his story on a daily basis. But, perhaps that’s to be expected. It’s a great story:

BERLIN, Germany – He was the “miracle baby,” the first polar bear born at the Berlin Zoo in more than 30 years. Immediately after birth, Knut (rhymes with “cute”) and his twin brother were abandoned by their mother, 30-year-old Tosca, a former circus performer. His brother died, but Knut has thrived under the 24-hour care of zookeeper Tom Dörflein, who sleeps on a cot by the bear’s pen and bottle feeds him every three hours just like a real baby.

At a mere three months of age, Knut made his world debut to a crowd of thousands. His portrait, by celebrity photographer Annie Leibowitz, has graced the cover of the newly launched German edition of Vanity Fair, and he’s became a symbol of the growing concern over climate change. “No ice, no polar bear,” said Sigmar Gabriel, the German Environment Minister, who is also Knut's godfather.

But soon after his successful debut, Knut fans the world over were stunned when animal rights activists called for him to be put down, saying that it was cruel for an Eisbär to be raised by humans. “Raising him by hand is not appropriate to the species but rather a blatant violation of animal welfare laws,” Frank Albrecht, an animal rights activist and window installer, told the German tabloid Das Bild. “In actual fact, the zoo needs to kill the bear cub – preferably with club, like the kind they use to club baby seals.”

Zoo officials claim they never entertained notions of euthanizing their “little cash cow.” In the months since his birth, the stock price of the publicly-traded zoo has more-than doubled from €2,000 per share to €4,900. In addition, the Berlin Zoo has earned millions in ticket sales and Knut merchandise. Up to 45,000 visitors flood through it’s gates every weekend, and the gift shop has had trouble keeping up with the demand for Knut T-shirts and plush Knut toys. There’s even a Knut song, a video ringtone, and a soon-to-be-released computer game.

In fact, the call for Knut’s death was merely satirical – a Swiftian suggestion, if you will – in response to a decision at the Leipzig Zoo back in December to euthanize a two-day-old sloth named Hugo after he was rejected by his mother. However, the subtleties of this statement were lost on the Eisbärchen’s youngest fans, who protested outside the zoo, holding up placards reading “Knut Must Live” and "We Love Knut.”

“Adults are so mean.” Celina, 6, told the Das Bild, “I would be really sad if little Knut had to die.”

“I thought animal rights activists were supposed to protect animals and didn't want to kill them,” added fellow protestor, Alexander, 4. “They are really silly!”

“I mean, come on,” said Job Bluth, 40, a businessman and freelance magician , “A Babyeisbär is 10 times – no 100 times cuter than a baby sloth. He deserves to live!”

Yet some calls for the bear’s death were not so light-hearted. Yesterday the Berlin Zoo received an anonymous note saying only, “Knut dies, Thursday noon.” Zoo officials say the threat was not taken seriously, and no additional security precautions were put in place, beyond Knut’s 15 full-time bodyguards. Thursday came and went with no attempts on the Bärchen’s life.

However, Dörflein, Knut’s full-time handler and surrogate father, says that despite the bear’s cuteness, even he wants to kill him sometimes, “I could throw him against the wall when everything comes together and he's shat all over his cage at three o'clock in the morning,” he told the Frankfurt’s Rundschau newspaper.

Dorflein, 43, has attracted his own following, mostly women. Knut is rarely seen outside the presence of his handler, who has been described by Der Spiegel as “bearded and tall … and a bit like a bear himself.” When Dörflein took a few days vacation at Easter, Knut became “visibly distressed,” said zoo officials, and he had to cut short his 3-day vacation and return to the zoo. “I coulda killed the little furball right then and there,” he said. “But he was just so darn cute!”

But the day will soon come when the bear is not so cute, nor friendly with humans, even his “father.” Polar bears hit puberty at about a year and soon after become too violent to be alone with humans. At two years, they are ready to mate. Most recently, the zoo in the western German city of Gelsenkirchen hinted that it would be interested in having Knut court two-year-old polar bear Lara. “In theory, he could already come here when he turns one,” a spokeswoman for the Gelsenkirchen Zoo told the news agency DDP. “That way we could produce a little Knut, Jr., every year or two and keep revenues up.”

*Article compiled from English-language storieson Der Spiegel … and a little of my own research.

Watch the music video “Cute Knut”:

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