A Grim Fairy Take about a bear (part 1)

Once upon a time there were two captive polar bears called Vera and Vilma who lived at the same zoo. Both fell pregnant, and gave birth at round about the same time. Over the preceeding thirty years, births of polar bears in captivity had dropped from around 300 to 90, so the births at the zoo were closely monitored, not only by experts but also by the world’s media. Due to a non-interference policy by keepers, it was uncertain exactly how many cubs Vilma had given birth to, though it was believed to be two, while Vera appeared to have produced just one cub. After a few weeks Vilma’s cubs had not been seen for a while, and she began acting strangely: she seemed nervous, and was scratching at her feed box. There was only one horrible conclusion: that she had devoured them both. Despite the zoo owners’ announcement that the cubs had most likely been ill, and that, as in the wild, she had killed and eaten them, the zoo’s decision not to intervene was considered by many to have been unecessarily callous. Angry visitors to the zoo gathered outside Vilma’s enclosure, and could be heard muttering ‘Rabenmutter’ (Raven Mother/Evil Mother) whenever she came into sight.

The reaction of the media was not surprising: the news spread very quickly- after all, it had a compelling storyline: Maternal cannibalism, cute, photogenic bear cubs, and the tortuous decision to intervene or to let nature take its course. Meanwhile, Vera could be seen emerging from her den for the first time, with her cub, which appeared perfectly healthy. However, within a couple of days of the media furore, she started acting strangely as well: she could be seen carrying the cub around her enclosure and repeatedly dropping it onto the hard rock floor. Fearing the same fate for this cub, a keeper was sent into the enclosure to rescue it for its own safety. It was decreed that she would be raised by hand and fed with a bottle. There was a webpage set up, and a competition to name her, and eventually they settled on the name ‘Flocke’ which means ‘snowflake’. But this story isn’t about Flocke, it’s about her predecessor, another bear cub who had been born not so far away, and under similar circumstances. The media, always keen for a romance, hailed Flocke as the future ‘bride’ of this other polar bear cub, but their liaison was not to be. This is the story of the other bear, Flocke’s intended fiance.

A different zoo had lent a male polar bear, Lars, to another institution, and he mated with Tosca, an ex performing circus bear. The birth took place under the watchful eye of the world’s media. There were two cubs, but unfortunately, Tosca also rejected them, abandoning the two of them, no bigger than guinea-pigs, on a rock in her enclosure. The zoo management decided in this case to rescue them, and they were scooped up by keepers in a sort of fishing net. One of them caught an infection and died soon after, but the other survived.

And thus, the polar bear Knut was born, abandoned by his mother, his brother already dead, his father sent back to his original zoo. Animal Rights Campaigners protested that Mother Nature knows best and she should be allowed to take her course, that he should have been left where he was, whatever the consequences. But most people poo-pooed this idea as unecessarily heartless. After all, he was sooooooo cute and cuddly, how could anyone abandon him? Surely he deserved a chance? In response to calls for him to be left to die naturally, protesters gathered outside the zoo, children held placards proclaiming, ‘Knut must live! We love Knut!’ and who can resist protesting children?

Thomas, the keeper allocated to caring for him, was utterly dedicated to his task, and despite already being a father of three children, had to live, eat and sleep with the baby bear, which was the only way to raise him safely, as he needed constant care. He would clean him every morning, give him his bottle while nursed in his arms, wrestle with him when he was old enough to play, and cuddle him to sleep at night. Sometimes he lulled him to sleep by playing Elvis Presley lullabies on the guitar. When he was a little older, Thomas taught Knut to play football. Twice a day he would play with the tiny, fluffy, white bear cub in his enclosure, watched by throngs of adoring fans.

Knut instantly became a symbol of vulnerability and cuteness. Eevntually he was even adopted as the symbol of global conservation, an emblem of the fight to protect polar bears’ precarious existence on this planet. People not ‘fortunate’ enough to have been able to visit the zoo to see Knut tussling and tottering about, could watch videos of him and his ‘daddy’ on YouTube. In fact, if you watch these videos, you can’t help but be touched by them. The abandoned bear and his keeper/stepfather obviously had a very close bond. Knut, not surprisingly, soon became an international star. There was even talk of ‘Knutmania’. Within a couple of years he was on the cover of Vanity Fair with Leonardo DiCaprio, the photograph shot by none other than celebrity photographer Annie Liebovitz. There was an animated film made about him, several songs released about him, a range of gummy bears named after him, and cuddly toys, manufactured by Steiff, and sold exclusively at the zoo, sold like hot cakes: the first 2,400 vanishing off the shelves within four days. The volume of visits to the zoo where Knut lived increased by 30%; it was said he  made five million euros in revenue for his owners.  As a result, the zoo which had loaned his father, Lars, staked a claim to a percentage of the profits, even staking a claim to Knut himself, and legal battles ensued. Unaware of all the furore, Knut frolicked and gamboled around in his enclosure, watched by his devoted ‘father’ and fans. Sadly, the story didn’t end here, on a high note.

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