When I was on vacation in Germany in 2007, a billboard promoting Frankfurt with a picture of a piggy bank on it read: “Berlin hat Knut. Frankfurt hat Schweine.” I understood that “swine” in this case referred to the financial industry centered in Frankfurt, but a random German on the streets had to inform me what “Knut” meant. He was a polar bear born in captivity in the Berlin zoo. His polar bear mother (a former circus-performer) rejected him, so surrogate father, zookeeper Thomas Dörflein, raised him, and little did I know that I’d arrived in Germany at the dizzy peak of “Knutmania.” Deutschland loved the cuddly runt.
Knut’s upbringing may have been unorthodox, some would even say “unnatural,” but was it wrong? Animal rights activist Frank Albrecht thought so. The life of a polar bear without a polar bear mother’s love and instruction was no polar bear life at all. Albrecht and a few others advocated euthanasia for Knut, but the children of Berlin stood in his corner, and the result was the zoo’s most profitable year in its then-163-year history. So that shut Albrecht up.
But the light bulb that burns twice as bright lasts half as long, and like all child stars, Knut didn’t grow up quite right. At 2 years old, when his surrogate zookeeper father died of a heart attack at the age of only 44, Knut was considerably less adorable. He was also a little strange, letting the polar bear ladies in his enclosure walk all over him. Some have argued that the stress of his living situation may have contributed to his premature death (captivity polar bears can live up to 30 years; Knut was 4), which the results of a recent autopsy blame on brain disease. Witnesses say his rear leg began twitching before he collapsed in a pool of water and drowned as zookeepers rushed to rescue him.
What did the people of Germany see in him? The story of Knut is one of captivity, exploitation, controversy and a-cute (too soon?) heart break. In honor of his story, think of him as you gaze at your shoes in sadness, listening to “Polar Bear” off of Ride’s 1990 debut, Nowhere: