Knut's Keeper Dies

BlogHer Original Post

Thomas Dörflein died this week leaving behind one very confused bear. Dörflein, a keeper with the Berlin Zoo, was known to the world as the surrogate father of Knut, a polar bear rejected by his mother, Tosca, at birth. Born in December 2006, Dörflein actually moved into the animal's enclosure to provide round-the-clock care. Bear and man developed a tight bond, raising the question: How much should humans interfere in the matter of wild animals?  

Like all babies, Knut grew into adulthood and became too large and dangerous for human physical contact. Last November, the Berlin Zoo decided it was best if bear and man went their separate ways. (Just a month earlier, Dörflein was awarded Berlin's prestigious Medal of Merit in honor of his care of Knut.) Other than one large lonely polar bear, the famous bearded zookeeper is survived by his girlfriend, Daniela K., two grown-up children and a six-year-old son.

Though photos of the young cub and the handsome, caring Dörflein were initially released to the media, it wasn't until Knut's first public appearance, on March 23, 2007, that the "Knut Show" was officially underway. Dörflein was right there by his side and, at three-and-a-half-incredibly-adorable-months old, Knut was an official celebrity. Knut reached the ulitmate heights of fame after being photographed by celebrity shutterbug, Annie Leibovitz, for Vanity Fair as part of a climate change campaign. (For his part, the rugged Dörflein also began receiving fan mail which included more than a few marriage proposals from besotted female fans.)

Week after week, Dörflein and "Cute Knut" delighted visiting crowds as their bond grew closer. (Newspapers reported that Doerflein also played Knut Elvis songs on the guitar and gave him Christmas presents in addition to mixing a special porridge.) Many in the media observed that Dörflein provided a human aspect to the Knut story while legend of their famous friendship grew. At five-and-a-half months, Knut had become a "shaggy fighter" and his growing size meant the relationship was about to change.

Meanwhile, the Berlin Zoo found they had a cash cow in polar bear's clothing. In 2007 alone, visitors scrambling to get a glimpse of the Dörflein-Knut act, brought in an estimated €5 million ($7.7 million). Even Knut's biological father's owners (got that?) wanted a piece of the celebrity pie.  At one point, the Neumünster Zoo had threatened to take its counterpart in Berlin to court. They eventually gave up but more proof that fame can bring greedy relatives out of the woodwork.

These days, poor Knut does a lot of pining for his long-lost 'father' and, yes, for the public attention he'd grown accustomed to. Evidently, Knut - hand-reared by a human - is suffering from a very real identity crisis and does not realize he is a polar bear. Because his keepers are no longer allowed to play with him, Knut has been howling plaintively wondering where all his friends have gone. The human contact that served him so well in his young life is proving to be a handicap in adulthood and Knut's having a hard time coping without.   

Markus Röbke, who helped Dörflein care for Knut as a cub, said the bear should leave the zoo as soon as possible so he can adjust to a life without familiar humans. In an interview with the German newspaper, Bild, he said:

"Knut must go. As soon as possible. We had to give a written assurance that we would no longer have direct contact with Knut. If we don't adhere to that, we face disciplinary action ... (Knut) doesn't know that he's a polar bear. As long as he's with us, he will always regard Thomas Dörflein as his father."

Knut's sad story gets even more gut-wrenching when Röbke divulges that the bear howls in lonely agony whenever he picks up Dörflein's scent. Furthermore, Knut has become so used to the attention of people that he also cries when no one is standing in front of his enclosure watching him. When the zoo closed for a day this winter because the paths were iced over, Knut howled for hours until a keeper took pity on him and stood in front of his enclosure.

"Knut needs an audience. That has to change," Röbke said.

Last Friday, just a handful of visitors came by to watch Knut - now tipping the scales at 308 pounds - lie around his pen. Just one year earlier, the adorable snowball of fur with button eyes made his debut and thousands queued up to watch him frolic with Dörflein. No one managed to clue Knut to the hard-won fact that fame is a fickle bitch.


It all makes one wonder if human involvement is the best thing for wild animals. But what's the alternative? Ignore the baby cub? Prosecute Tosca for neglect? Get Knut an agent? How much should humans get involved? Seems like one could make the same argument against Lynn Spears, ifyaknowwhatImean.

Interestingly, when the zoo decided to hand-rear Knut back in 2006, an animal rights campaigner publicly insisted that the zoo should let him die instead. He insisted the human involvement would humanize the bear too much and requested that the zoo cease its efforts to save young animals. In a March 2007 interview with Bild, animal rights campaigner Frank Albrecht was quoted as saying:

"Hand-rearing a polar bear is not appropriate and is a serious violation of animal rights. In fact, the cub should have been killed."

The zoo officially disregarded Albrecht's plea as "complete nonsense."
So, what is worse? A dead abandoned baby bear? Or a lonely, confused adult one? I guess I'm all for human involvement and saving the orphaned ones. Isn't heartbreak and confusion a reality for all creatures on Earth? Why should Knut have it any easier or harder than I do after being stood up for a blind date or grieving for my best friend? I feel that the irony of some of these animal rights activists is that they like to pretend that humans aren't part of the natural world. Inter-species adoptions happen all the time - one quick stop at CuteOverload will tell you that much.

Ultimately, I must tip my hat to this man's life. Though zoos generally give me the willies, I have to applaud someone who spent so much time and effort caring for another being in need. Whether it is a human or a rugrat, this is mankind at our best.

Some additional perspectives out there in the wilds of the blogosphere:

The blog Still Seraphic ("A Catholic Blog for Women about the Single Life") offered some insight in the post, "Poor Knut" back in late July:

"If Knut had been born in the wilderness, he would have been a dodgy neighbour. But Knut was born in a zoo, so he was basically a pet (but the kind of pet that might want to eat you when he grows up). Any creature that relies on humans for food is a pet. Therefore, it seems to me unfair to treat zoo animals as if they were (or should be) merely neighbours. Knut is a pet, and he's sad and crazy, and although he is probably dangerous, it seems very stupid and cruel to encourage him to be 'just a bear' again."

Blogger Ninchen was a bit disgusted by the international press coverage and offers that perspective in her blog, I Cannot See You But I Know You're There, in her recent post,"Polar Bear Blues":

"I have a notion that people in the western societies care too much about animals. Which might sound weird here, since we are talking about a dead man. BUT nobody would have reported in the US (or any foreign country) if he had been the foster father to some human baby, however cute the baby might have been. Yes. You might argue that there are more human babies to be fostered, and that it is such a special thing. But it works in so many cases. PETA! I loath the animal rights activists so much! ... I think it is important to take care of nature and animals the like. But if all these animal rights activists would spend half the time and money on human rights - or only childrens rights if they want to help the truly helpless - (I hate to say that now:) the world would be a better place."

Some terrific writing and insight from the Oh Animals! blog in the current post, "RIP Knutkeeper":

"But along with adoration and lots and lots of euros, this story of human-bear love eventually attracted the same level of scrutiny as any verboten tabloid romance. Some animal rights activists who objected to the hand-rearing called for Knut to be put to sleep. The Nuremburg Zoo sniffed that they would let their new baby bears die before blurring the lines of human-animal families. (Nuremburg ended up reversing its position and hand-rearing little Flocke after one of the other polar bears ate her own two cubs.)"

RIP Thomas. Hang in there, Knut. 

~ClizBiz, Contributing Editor, Animals Concerns

Mistress of ClizBiz & ClizBiz


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