In Death as in Life, Knut the Polar Bear Demands Attention

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BERLIN -- Whether one bear needs three memorials in a single city is debatable. For Knut the polar bear, that unusual, some might be tempted to say excessive, distinction is on the verge of becoming a reality.

Last month, fans unveiled a white marble marker for the fifth birthday of the world-famous cub at a graveyard in the far western neighborhood of Spandau. At the Natural History Museum in central Berlin, officials say plans are proceeding to mount an exhibit in Knut's honor, with his stuffed remains as the centerpiece, despite controversy. And the Berlin Zoo plans to dedicate a bronze statue in March on the first anniversary of his death.

Knut (pronounced K'NOOT) captured the world's attention after he was rejected by his mother following his birth in 2006 and bottle-fed by zookeepers who saved his life. In Germany, Knut became a national obsession, and apparently still is. The newsweekly Der Spiegel recently compared him to Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain -- Knut Cobain, actually -- a shooting star who died young.

Germans, it will be noted, are a tad crazy for animals. Last summer, the runaway cow Yvonne made nonstop headlines for her bovine wanderings, as did Paul the Octopus, who successfully predicted the outcomes of games during the 2010 World Cup, including the championship. An opossum named Heidi found fame simply for being cross-eyed.

Berlin, meanwhile, is preoccupied with memorials. Many are dedicated to deadly serious topics like the two World Wars, the Holocaust and the wall that divided the city for 28 years. But the urge extends to lighter characters from the city's past, like the Captain of Köpenick, who dressed up in uniform and led a gullible troop of soldiers to help him rob City Hall.

So it was perhaps inevitable that Knut would become the subject of multiple monuments, particularly since the Knut camp is divided between the devoted "Knut Kult" and the zoo administrators whom the news media portray as heartless profiteers.

"It cannot be that the little Knut is completely forgotten," said Karin Gude-Kohl, 67, who paid most of the $5,000 to put the white stone in the Spandau cemetery out of her own pocket. It stands next to the grave of his beloved trainer, Thomas Dörflein, who died at the age of 44 in 2008, with a paw print and an inscription, "In commemoration of the unique Knut."

"The little one was world famous," Ms. Gude-Kohl said. "He earned them more than 10 million euro, and they can't even put up a commemorative plaque."

Thomas Ziolko, chairman of the board of the Friends of the Animal Park Berlin and Berlin Zoo and leader of the three-member selection committee for the zoo statue, said he thought the timing was proper. "For a human, you have to be dead for five years before you can have a street or a square named after you," Mr. Ziolko said. "I think a year for an animal is reasonable."

The polar bear, Mr. Ziolko noted, was not even the zoo's first superstar. That honor went to a gorilla with the not very Teutonic name of Bobby, who inspired the popular song "My Gorilla Has a Villa in the Zoo." It is still performed as a standard of the German songbook, and a gorilla remains the emblem of the zoo. After his death in 1935, Bobby was stuffed and put in the Natural History Museum and has a statue on the grounds of the zoo.

After World War II, it was a hippopotamus called Knautschke, who survived the war, the cold and the deprivation, eventually siring offspring in both East and West Germany.

"I don't know which criteria an animal has to fulfill to become a personality, but there has to be a story behind it," said Christoph Scheuermann, who wrote about the afterlife of the Knut phenomenon for Der Spiegel. "It is not sufficient to be a nice-looking polar bear or hippo to become a personality."

Knut arrived on the scene at a moment when global warming was a growing topic, born the same year that the climate-change film "An Inconvenient Truth," starring Al Gore, was released. The bear's personal peril seemed to reflect that of his species. Knut's brother died after they were abandoned, but the future star was saved by Mr. Dörflein, who moved into the zoo temporarily to care for him.

When an animal-rights activist suggested that the photogenic cub should be euthanized, Knut became a cause célèbre overnight. Germany's environment minister posed for pictures with the bear. He shared the cover of Vanity Fair magazine with Leonardo DiCaprio.

But tragedy seemed to follow him throughout his short life. First his trainer died of a heart attack. Then the bear drowned, in front of hundreds of zoogoers, after collapsing into the pool of his enclosure from a brain swelling.

The challenge facing the selection committee is how to capture in bronze the essence of a polar bear cub famous for his soft, cuddly appearance and playful antics. A conference table in a three-story administrative building here is crowded with polar bear models, statuettes and sketches, entries in the competition to design the statue that will be erected in the Berlin Zoo.

In many of the designs, he raises a paw like a human waving his hand. In others, he plays with balls or curls on his back until he resembles a ball himself. In one model, a little wax bear mischievously knocks over a basket of fish while a butterfly perches on his hindquarters.

One artist personally delivered a steel sculpture weighing more than 200 pounds, with an eerie face in relief gazing out from one of the bear's hind legs, which was supposed to be a likeness of the bear's late trainer, Mr. Dörflein.

There are three criteria for the designs. Knut has to be the cute cub that rocketed to fame rather than the troubled adolescent of his later years; the finished statue must be bronze; and the cost cannot exceed 15,000 euros, or around $20,000.

Though he said he was impressed with the overall quality of the submissions, Mr. Ziolko, who grew up in East Berlin watching the famous zoo director Heinrich Dathe's television show, was far from uniform in his praise. In one, he said, the snout looked like a dog's muzzle. Another was built like a frog.

"It has to be recognizable as Knut," Mr. Ziolko added.

"I'm no zoologist," he said, pointing at one statue design, "but that looks more like a brown bear."

One of the more promising models came from Josef Tabachnyk, the artist who designed the statue of the popular chancellor and Nobel laureate Willy Brandt for the city of Nuremberg. The plaster Knut lies with his head on his paw on what would be a slab of white granite in the final memorial, contemplative, peaceful and finally at rest.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times .


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