Knut: a life between bears and humans

Today, the polar bear who was raised by humans at the Berlin Zoo was found dead in his enclosure. Knut was rejected by his mother when he was born at the zoo in 2006. The orphan cub became a beloved and familiar feature of the zoo, and of animal-lovers the world over. Touching photographs of the somewhat ill-adjusted bear show him interacting with a young girl and her stuffed, plush version of his species through his enclosure window. Vanity Fair superimposed him onto an iceberg for the cover of their Green Issue in 2007 and, on the cover of a German edition, was called a “superstar.”

Knut on a German postage stamp declaring: "Natur weltweit bewahren" (Preserve nature worldwide). (Wikicommons)

Yet, reports from late last year say Knut was bullied by the other polar bears within his enclosure. He was apparently not so beloved by his own kind. Zookeepers say, despite successfully raising a healthy cub in captivity, he lacked the social skills necessary to build relationships with other polar bears.

The autopsy is to be performed this week. Zoo officials say Knut had no known illness. Visitors who witnessed his death report the bear seemed to be having a seizure and collapsed limply in the enclosure’s pool. The activist group Peta is now pointing a finger at the Berlin Zoo, saying they knew Knut was not adjusting to the three females in his enclosure. Adult polar bears, they claim, are solitary, and an adult male would never associate so closely with three females. Was Knut bullied to death by the other bears? Was he unable to establish himself as alpha? Was he incapable of breeding, as it seems may have been the intentions of the zoo? Was the stress of living halfway between the human and the animal world too much for him?

Interestingly, the zoo keeper most responsible for raising Knut, Thomas Doerflien, died of a heart attack in 2008. He had recently been told he could no longer enter Knut’s enclosure, for fear the growing bear was too dangerous. Some characterize Doerflien’s passing as dying of a broken heart. Has Knut now suffered a similar fate?

A photograph on NPR showed, shockingly, Knut floating dead in his enclosure’s pool. The photograph, the site noted, was taken by a zoo visitor, on a cellphone. Other sources report more than 600 zoo visitors witnessed the scene with children breaking down in tears unable to process the death of their furry friend.

I hope there will be more uplifting moments of remembrance for the beloved animal in coming days. Zoos around the world tackle with the challenges of losing familiar animals, and tomorrow I will explore some of the ways zoos help their visitors mourn animal deaths.

Categories: Animals | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Knut: a life between bears and humans

  1. Pingback: A great snake escape: imagining the Bronx Zoo’s cobra « Curiosities

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