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How Do We “Love” Polar Bears?

Death of Knut at Berlin Zoo raises questions

Poster boy Knut: How do we best express our “love” for an endangered animal?

“I love you, Knut!” said one message on a polar bear fan page.

“I’ve been blubbering for days,” said another.

The death of the 4-year-old star of the Berlin Zoo had sent a nation into mourning and provoked comment all around the world. On Tuesday, initial results from the necropsy indicated “significant changes to the brain.” But it will be several days before tests are complete and a report is issued explaining why a bear who could have lived for decades had collapsed suddenly at the age of 4.

Knut died on Saturday afternoon in front of hundreds of visitors, including children. At first, people laughed, assuming that his sudden gyrations were just some kind of play. But laughter turned to horror as the spasms increased, as the bear twirled around, and then as he fell flat on his face into a pool of water and remained motionless.

Whatever the results of the autopsy, Knut’s death is already as controversial as his life. His mother had come to the zoo after a life as a performing circus bear, and, as often happens with animals in captivity, had rejected the two cubs she’d just given birth to. Knut’s brother died two days later, and Knut was headed the same way. Several animal protection groups argued that the cub was in a completely unnatural situation and that nature should be allowed to take its course. But Knut was saved by his new “foster mother,” zookeeper Thomas Dorflein, who camped out at the zoo and gave Knut 24/7 care, including bottle-feeding every two hours.

Cub and keeper bonded, and Knut’s fame spread as zoo visitors saw the two together and photos of them went around the world.

But it was indeed an unnatural situation. Bears in the wild do not bond with humans. And when male bears leave their mothers, they become loners, apart from brief mating encounters.

Two years later, with Knut now largely grown up, he and his keeper were separated. Dorflein was told to stay away from Knut altogether. Soon after that, at age 44, the keeper died suddenly – apparently of a heart attack. Friends said he’d died of a broken heart over the separation. There were reports, later denied, that he’d committed suicide.

Over the following months, photos and video of Knut showed the bear wandering morosely around his enclosure, staring at the ground.

Knut was now in an enclosure with three females, who appeared to be harassing him. “He was subjected to enormous stress,” said Thomas Schroder, director of the German Animal Welfare Association, “not just by the media hype and public scrutiny, but also by the fact that he was kept in an enclosure with three females.”

Other animal welfare experts said there were warning signs. “He was looking apathetic; he lay in a corner of his enclosure. Someone should have picked up on this,” said Claudia Hammerling, a member of Parliament.

Critics pointed to the fact that Knut was a major moneymaker for the Berlin Zoo. According to German media reports, visitor numbers are up 30 percent since Knut arrived, and in 2007 the zoo made around $4 million in profit, thanks to Knut.

“He was a PR coup for Berlin Zoo,” said Thomas Pietsch, a wildlife expert for the Hamburg organization Four Paws.” They made a fortune out of him. But it’s wrong to keep polar bears in captivity. They need a lot of space and they’re used to the Arctic climate.”

Meanwhile, the tributes to Knut continue online. So do the criticisms of keeping bears and other animals in captivity. At a time when polar bears are in danger of going extinct, the question arises: If we “love” these wild but endangered creatures, how can we best express that love?