Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Goodbye to Knut the Polar Bear from Berlin

Sometime in 2007, I came across an article in the Internet about Knut and I fell in love with the little bear and his story immediately.

Knut and a brother were born in 2006 to a former circus performer from East Germany but for an unknown reason, she rejected both her cubs and abandoned them somewhere in the enclosure. The cubs were very lucky because their mother left them in a place where the Zookeepers were able to get to them and remove them still alive.

The first cub died after a few days but the second cub, later named Knut, lived to make history, he was the first polar bear cub to be born and survive in the Berlin Zoo for some 30 years.

Getting Knut to survive was no easy task, he spent a lot of time first in an incubator and then being actually cared for around the clock, in fact, one of the Zoo kepers was almost as famous as Knut for his total and complete dedication to the little cub, his name was Thomas Dörflein. During Knut's first years he fed him, bathe him, played with him, even slept next to his crate at night.

There was a big controversy about this, several animal rights groups said it wasn't natural for a Polar Bear to be raised by a person and that it would only hurt him in the end.

But it was too late already for any other decision to be made, Knut had survived being rejected by his mom, he was growing up and he was already a big P.R. hit for the Zoo and he was already loved and adored by millions of people, so he kept growing under the care of Thomas. Both of them were part of the daily shows at the Zoo, they played together, hugged and were the fascination of the adoring and growing public... Zoo attendance increased significantly, everybody wanted to meet the cute little cub. I saw several videos of these shows and they were just adorable, no other way to describe it.

Before he was 1 year old, he was already too big, not for a polar bear, but too big for humans, so he had to say goodbye to his 'dad', Thomas, and the Zoo started trying to get him to meet other bears. I remember reading that this was very difficult for him, that he kept waiting for Thomas to show up at a certain time or place in the enclosure, that he would exhibit anxious behavior and definitely not very successful at making friends with the other bears, there were reports even that he was bullied by the other bears and this was blamed in the fact that he was raised by people, so he didn't know about relating with others of his kind.

His early childhood seemed so happy, it was sad to hear about his problems adjusting to 'bear' life as he grew up, but I never thought it could be too bad, even without Thomas and sharing his place with other bears, I was convinced he was happy enough and I wanted so much to see him someday.

And that someday arrived! We were lucky enough to make a trip to Germany in 2009 and when we were making plans the items in the itinerary that were a few 'must-do' in our list while in Berlin: visit what was left of the Berlin Wall, the Reichstag and Knut, everything else was negotiable, that's how much I wanted to see him.

It's hard to describe the day we went to the Berlin Zoo. I was the most stereotypical tourist ever! I was so excited about finally meeting Knut in person that I wanted to buy every souvenir available, I kept hurrying everybody up because of course Knut's enclosure was at the other end of the Zoo. It was great to finally see him, but at the same time I couldn't ignore the pacing. He was just pacing from one side to the other, back and forth, back and forth, everybody in our little group commented about that, didn't look quite right... but well, maybe it was close to his meal time and he was anxious or something like that. I came up with several theories to make me feel better, but regardless, it was still a bit sad seeing him pace like that, I hoped that he wasn't spending most of his time like that.

A couple of days ago, Knut died, at an extremely young age. He was just 4 years old when Polar Bears in captivity live in average of 30 years. They still don't know the official cause of death, but there were some preliminary reports about some anomalies in his brain that could have contributed to his death.

I still have a conflict about Zoos and the good/bad impact they have on animals and Knut is a big part of this internal discussion going on in my head, but regardless of my evolving thoughts on the matter, on the ethics around keeping animals in captivity and regardless also on how Knut's unusual upbringing may have affected him during his short live, I want to think that he was happy most of his life and that he made a difference bringing the plight of the polar bears and other endangered species to the forefront. Like me, I'm sure a lot of people around the world are sad about his passing but will remember him fondly.

Tschüß liebe Knut, 

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