A Grim Fairy Tale about a bear (part 2)

Very soon Knut the bear cub grew from a cute, fluffy, adorable little thing into a hefty creature with sharp fangs and claws, becoming too unwieldy and dangerous to continue his lucrative public play sessions with Thomas. Having given up a year of his life to tend to Knut, apparently his keeper was finding his new-found fame hard to handle anyway. He’d been receiving almost as much media attention as Knut, even resulting in marriage proposals. Consequently he ‘took a long holiday’ to wean Knut off his presence, or possibly the other way round. He claimed to be ‘burnt out’.

‘This doesn’t mean that I will never play with Knut again,’ he said. ‘I am always there for him. Knut is still a child. He needs me.’

However, a few months later there were rumours that Thomas had rowed with his bosses over concerns about his closeness with the animal, and that they banned him from any further contact. Friends claimed he then became severely depressed. Separation from his ‘stepfather’ was not easy for Knut either. Animal rights campaigners, when arguing that it had been wrong to rescue him, claimed he would ‘die a little’ with every moment he was separated from his keeper, and their prediction appeared to bear some truth. Although Thomas was not allowed to apporach Knut any more, the bear would howl when he caught the scent of the keeper. Shortly afterwards, at the age of 44, Thomas was found dead one day in his apartment. It was rumoured that he had been ill for some time, and a  post mortem revealed, fittingly, a heart attack. Thomas was mourned by many, but poignantly also by Knut, even his grief became public property: he was photographed alone in his enclosure in the rain, staring morosely at a nearby rock.

Meanwhile, Knut continued to grow. At two years old he weighed in at a strapping 200 kilos, an unpredictable adolescent with the need for more space and an emerging foul temper. There was talk of moving him to another zoo where he would have more room, but once again the public spoke, and the placard-bearing children took up position at the zoo gates. It was decided that he would stay where he was. Like most child stars, he started to display signs that he was addicted to public attention, playing up for the crowd, and crying when there were no visitors looking at him. His birthday party was broadcast live on television, attended by several hundred well-wishers from all over the world, and of course, by the international press. As people sang ‘Happy Birthday’, he devoured a birthday sack of vegetables, fruit, fish, and his favourite, croissants. Over time there were worries about his psychological health. One zoologist described him as a ‘psychopath’, and one animal rights activist claimed that animals born into captivity become so dependent on man that they become divorced from nature and turn into ‘hyperactive, disturbed freaks’.

‘Knut is a problem bear who has become addicted to human beings,’ he told the newspapers. This was clearly illustrated when one day the zoo was closed due to ice, and there were no visitors. Because there was no-one looking at him, Knut howled until the zoo staff had to parade past his enclosure until he calmed down.

In general the number of visitors dropped off sharply now he was no longer the cute little baby bear he had been. Flocke began to emerge as the next rising polar star. Indeed, there was a notorious photo of now not-so-cute Knut lunging at a toddler from behind the 6-inch reinforced glass which had been fitted around his enclosure as a health and safety measure, glass panes luckily strong enough to withstand a mortar attack. The expression on his face, especially in his eyes, is disturbing, though it could just be a polar bear’s normal expression. His gaping jaw is elongated, his eyes wild and rolling, and he seems to express a kind of crazed fury. The photo looks like an animal version of Munch’s ‘Scream’.

Knut’s psychological problems didn’t end here. Attempts were made to ‘socialise’ him, and he was placed in a shared compound with Giovanna, a three-year old female bear on loan from another zoo, while her compound was being remodelled. Rumours abounded that they were being groomed to mate. But Knut’s life was always mired with controversy. There were then cries that this must not be allowed, as they shared a biological grandfather, Olaf, and that it would be an incestuous liaison, as they were technically cousins. It was declared by animal rights groups that If they were allowed to breed, the offspring would be prone to genetic abnormalities and liable to illness.

“A long-term cohabitation between Giovanna and Knut is only feasible if Knut is castrated,” they said. On this occasion children did not appear outside the zoo bearing placards, protesting to save his crown jewels. However, he managed to retain them, although Giovanna was removed from his company and sent back to her own zoo.

On another occasion, for a few weeks, he was placed in a compound with three females, an interesting choice: Tosca, the mother who rejected him, and two other bears called Nancy and Katjuscha, in the hopes he might mate with one of them, (even though the possibility of him mating with his own mother seems a clearer case of incest than with his cousin.) But he didn’t seem to enjoy female company, instead cowering fearfully in a corner. Hopes of him forming an attachment or mating were soon dashed, as the female bears appeared to bully him, Katjuscha even hurling herself at his throat viciously in an attempt to maul him, and then tipping him into the water. His strange, unassertive behaviour was dismissed as teething problems by keepers, and the violent maulings were waved away as normal, instantly forgotten, ‘just two minutes in the life of a bear’. They had hoped to raise Knut as a ‘stud’ bear, which would have earnt the zoo even more money, but it appeared he was having none of it. But perhaps the most disturbing thing was Knut’s odd behaviour as he grew older. As many unhappy, caged animals do, he took to pacing repetitively back and forth in his compound, and even developed the pitiful habit of raising his paw to cover his face, imitating people lifting their cameras to take photos of him.

Unsurprisingly, Knut’s life did not have a happy end. At four years old, in the enclosure he shared with several females (supposedly in continuing attempts to get him to mate), and under the gaze of between 600 and 700 horrified spectators, his leg began to spasm, he walked round and round in a circle several times, and then collapsed into the pool, where he lay, inert for some time before the enclosure was screened off from the traumatised onlookers. Post mortem results showed he’d had a brain swelling due to an infection, possibly encephalitis, which caused him to collapse into the pool, and there he drowned. Had he not drowned, the brain swelling would have probably killed him soon anyway. Even his death had become a spectator sport, witnessed by the public. One of the shocked keepers said,

‘He was by himself in his compound, he was in the water, and then he was dead.’

There could be fewer more simple and fitting epitaphs, for it could be argued that Knut was always destined to be alone, and was always dead in the water. He never got to ‘marry’ Flocke, the other little bear who was rescued, though to add a flicker of hope to this sad tale, it’s reported that she was paired off with a bear called Rasputin, and that they got along famously, and are now sharing an enclosure in another zoo. For some reason, despite also becoming a media sensation, with her own range of Steiff bears, her own devoted fans, and despite also being reared by keepers, unlike Knut, she never fell prone to psychological problems, health problems or depression. After his death, there were plans to create a commemorative statue for Knut at the zoo, depicting him in cuter times, as the fluffy bear cub everyone fell in love with, rather than as the troubled, moody adult bear he became. His remains were due to be stuffed and put on display at the local museum, so that even in death, he could provide a regular income for the town. Some people questioned this exploitation even after he had died, but the zoo keeper was pragmatic about it. Profits are profits. RIP Knut, or, as one Spanish newspaper, at the height of his fame, in the best typo ever- a  perfect illustration of the shoddy approach here to spelling foreign names, called him ‘El Pequeño (The Little) Kunt’.

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