Growing up dilutes the cute

IN FOCUS

Knut, the Berlin zoo's polar bear cub, isn't as snowy, cuddly or popular as he was just six months ago

Science

October 31, 2007|By Allison Connolly | Allison Connolly,Sun reporter

BERLIN -- Is Knut still cute?

The question as to whether Berlin's most famous polar bear is or isn't has been the subject of news stories and public debate here.

Alongside stories about global warming, U.S. missile defense and human rights abuses in China, there is Knut.

"There has been a growing consensus in the past few weeks that Knut is no longer as cute as he was when he was small," wrote Spiegel Online.

They lament that he is no longer the little snow-white fur ball that went on public display in March. They say his hair is turning yellow. And, they say, he's fat.

"Fatty Knut Put On A Strict Diet," screamed another Spiegel headline after Knut's doctor advised against giving him extra snacks of croissants, fish and meat.

The zoo, which is publicly traded, saw a sharp rise in its stock price soon after the cub appeared in March, but the penny stock has since fallen in value. Is Knut to blame?

A mere six months ago, Knut was nothing short of a sensation.

Back then he looked more like a teddy bear than a wild animal, and the media and the public couldn't get enough of him.

Thousands flocked to the zoo every day to get a look at him. Some devotees came every day, others traveled several times a week from as far away as Munich, about six hours by train or one hour by plane. His millionth visitor - a couple from the Dutch port city of Rotterdam - was feted with flowers and a gift basket that included a Knut soft toy.

Newspapers devoted two-page spreads to his photo. Berlin's tabloid Bild publishes a regular feature called "Love Letters for Knut" that is devoted to his fan mail.

The usually reserved Germans were unabashedly gooey about a bear.

Knut had a hard-luck story, which only fueled his overnight celebrity. Spurned shortly after birth last December by his mother, Tosca, a circus animal, he was hand-reared at the zoo. Wildlife experts recommended that he be killed rather than grow up in a zoo, which further rallied the public's sympathy.

He was bottle-fed porridge by his keeper, Thomas Doerflein, who taught him how to eat, play and swim. They staged two-hour shows every day that drew thousands. Knut spent every waking hour close to Doerflein's side; at night, Doerflein slept in a cot next to his cage.

The public went crazy over photos of the two together, turning Doerflein into an instant celebrity. The attention was so intense that Doerflein said he could no longer dine out in public because fans would interrupt his meal asking for autographs or offering to buy him a drink. He received love letters from admiring women from all over the world, which he said put a strain on his relationship with his girlfriend.

But like other young polar bears, Knut is growing quickly, and thus his star is fading. He already weighs 80 kilograms - about 176 pounds - nearly eight times heavier than when he made his debut. His white fur has taken on a yellow tint like his parents'. And because he has grown so much stronger, his trainer can no longer play with him without fear of getting hurt, so the daily two-hour shows have stopped.

It didn't take long for the media to turn on Knut. Then his very own stepfather turned on him.

Doerflein told a Berlin newspaper that Knut was faking an injured right hind paw to get attention. X-rays showed no signs of a fracture or break. After a round of medication and some extra care, Knut was back solidly on all fours.

Now he roams his enclosure alone, while his father, Lars, frolics with three female polar bears - none of which is Knut's mother - in another enclosure a few yards away.

By comparison, the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington reports that it is still enjoying strong demand for its animal celebrity, Tai Shan the panda, who is now 2 years old.

When Tai Shan's birth was imminent, more than 100 journalists from all over the world descended on the zoo. The Washington Post had a regular "Panda Watch" column and live video feed from the zoo on its Web site.

"These are Washington journalists who are obsessed with the pregnancy of a panda," said Sarah Taylor of Ellicott City, a spokeswoman for the National Zoo.

Even a litter of cheetah cubs and tree python hatchlings couldn't compete with Tai Shan, she said.

Taylor believes the panda's features tend to elicit a unique response from humans: The black rings around their eyes make them look wide-eyed, she said, and their ears stick out. And they sit much as a human baby does, on their rear ends with legs and hands pointing forward.

"Polar bears are a bit scarier than pandas," said Taylor, whose loyalty clearly lies with her zoo's furry celebrity. "Pandas tend to stay cute their whole lives."

But cry not for Knut, said his veterinarian, Andre Schuele. Polar bears are solitary creatures. Knut actually prefers to be alone, he said, which is a sign that he is growing up. And Knut will only get bigger: Fully grown polar bears weigh an average of 600 kilos, or more than 1,300 pounds.

The hype around Knut might be waning, but there are still fans, if not full-fledged fanatics.

"He's beautiful," said Brigit Groehl of Berlin, who was standing alone under a red-and-white-striped umbrella, watching Knut as he rested on his belly under a stone ledge, escaping the rain.

Groehl, a 44-year-old mother of two pre-teens, said she comes to the zoo several times each week to check up on her favorite polar bear.

"My children love Knut, but I love him more," she said quite seriously. "Small or big."

allison.connolly@baltsun.com

Knut online

Knut, the German polar bear cub that warmed the hearts of animal lovers everywhere, is growing up. But in cyberspace, cute little Knut might well exist forever, as a Google search of Knut and polar bear will quickly show you.

For The Sun's online photo gallery, go to baltimoresun.com/knut.

For even more pictures, go to Spiegel Online at spiegel.de/international/0,1518,461624,00.html

To see video of baby Knut, go to youtube.com/watch?v=zZLKb_5S21E.

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