Germany mourns Knut, polar bear sensation
Germany was in stunned mourning Sunday after the sudden and premature death of Knut, Berlin's world-famous polar bear, at the end of what animal welfare groups said was an unhappy, short life.
"Everyone is just in shock here," said Claudia Bienek, a spokeswoman for Berlin Zoo where Knut shot to global fame in 2007 as a photogenic snow-white cub after being rejected by his mother and reared by hand.
Knut, pulled dead from a pool in his enclosure he shared with three females on Saturday afternoon, was just four years and three months old, well below the average life expectancy for polar bears of around 35.
The cause of Knut's untimely death was not immediately known, said Heiner Kloes, in charge of bears at Berlin Zoo. Vets were due to conduct an autopsy on Monday.
The BZ daily quoted zoo visitors as saying that Knut was sitting on rocks in his enclosure when his left leg began to shake. He then started walking around in circles before falling into the water.
Zoo workers then erected a screen around the enclosure while Knut was fished out. Soon afterwards the zoo closed, BZ said.
"This is awful," said Berlin's mayor Klaus Wowereit. "We had all taken him to our hearts. He was the star of Berlin Zoo."
Knut weighed nine kilogrammes (19 pounds) at birth and triggered a wave of media coverage after an animal activist said he should have been put down after he and his brother, who later died, were rejected by their mother.
Claims by the activist that he was misquoted were lost in the ensuing media storm as Knut was reared by hand, with his keeper Thomas Doerflein bottle-feeding him and strumming Elvis Presley songs for him on his guitar.
His first public appearance of "Cute Knut" in March 2007 attracted 100 camera crews from around the world.
Twice-daily appearances allowed the public to watch Knut splash in a pond, jump on rocks and play with his handler, who had carefully removed the newborn from his aggressive mother's cage.
He generated millions of euros (dollars) for the Zoo in merchandising and extra entrance fees.
The cuddly white cub sent Berlin Zoo's shares soaring to an all-time high on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange as visitors queued in their thousands to watch him play.
Stuffed toy "Knut" bears sold out several times over, the cub made it onto the cover of glossy magazine Vanity Fair and Hollywood superstar Tom Cruise and his daughter Suri came to visit him, as did Leonardo DiCaprio.
But once Knut grew into a strapping adolescent and then adult, animal welfar groups began to worry that he was displaying abnormal behaviour because of all the attention.
He would sway to and fro and even imitate people taking photos by lifting a paw to his face. Hopes that Knut might form a romantic attachment with one of the females were dashed as stories emerged of violent maulings.
Doerflein, his keeper, died at 44 of a heart attack in 2008.
"Knut's short and distressful life shows us again that polar bears do not belong in zoos, even if they are called Knut," said Wolfgang Apel, head of the German animal protection association.
Knut is not the only animal to have captured the nation's hearts.
Last year Paul the Octopus achieved nothing short of global fame who from his tank in northern Germany for correctly "predicting" the outcome of the nation's matches in the football World Cup.
Paul has since died -- aged three, normal for an octopus -- but the latest star is a cross-eyed opossum called Heidi in Leipzig Zoo, hired as a tipster for last month's Oscars on US television.
© 2011 AFP