Nuremberg Zoo Keepers Let Mother Nature Rule on Cubs' Fate

What has been speculation in the local media and concern among animal lovers has just become a sad fact — some of the polar bear cubs born in Nuremberg Zoo a few weeks ago are believed to be dead.

Vilma, one of the young female polar bear mothers in Nuremberg, has today been visited by her favorite keeper in her cave for the first time since she gave birth to an unknown number of cubs. The keeper could not locate any of the cubs. Vilma was a little nervous, but well-fed and she appeared not to be hungry.

Wild animals are known to eat their offspring if they are unable to survive and it is believed that has been the case here.

Two young polar bears, Vera and Vilma, have given birth to an unknown number of cubs in the southern German city of Nuremberg in recent weeks, but the zoo here has been determined to avoid what is known as "Knutmania" (after the celebrity polar bear Knut that was hand-reared in Berlin) and is fully prepared to let the cubs die in a strict hands-off policy rather than raise them by hand should the mother bears reject them.

While Vilma seems to show signs of being a good mother, Vera occasionally has left her cave for hours and visitors could see her lazing outside ignoring the cries, sparking concern in the local media that she's neglecting her offspring and that the cubs will starve.

It was such neglect from his mother that made Knut, the polar bear in Berlin that just had his first birthday party last month, such international celebrity.

After Knut was abandoned by his 20-year-old mother at birth, animal rights activists had even suggested to let Knut and his twin brother die rather than be raised by humans.

Berlin Zoo officials disagreed at the time and keepers scooped him and his brother out of the bear's compound with fishing net.

Both babies were placed in an incubator, but only Knut survived.

He was raised by hand, fed by bottle with milk and cod liver oil every half hour. When Knut was 4 months old, his keeper fed him chicken puree and vegetables and later on, croissants and grapes became his favorite snack.

Knut became the darling of Berliners, attracting more than 2.5 million visitors in the last year. Media from all over the world have made him an international celebrity and he's also made it on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.

Nuremberg Zoo director Dag Enke does not want Knutmania in his zoo.

He and his staff have taken a hard line on the cubs. "We've been bombarded with demands that we should intervene, but we decided to let Mother Nature take care of things. We fully expect to be branded as being cruel to animals, but fact is such is nature. If something goes wrong, it goes wrong. People need to understand that."

Enke is not opposed to hand-rearing in principle, but he says it had to be decided on an individual basis. "You cannot always intervene. You need to let the mother bears practice. If they don't learn how to bring up their cubs now, they will never learn. And both females are young, they can have plenty of babies."

Meanwhile, back in Berlin, zoo officials agreed with the stance taken in Nuremberg.

Heiner Kloes, zoologist and leading polar bear expert in Berlin, told ABCNEWS.com, "The decision taken in Nuremberg not to mess with Mother Nature is absolutely correct. I could not agree more. The female bears in Nuremberg have given birth for the first time and if you interfere at this point, you disturb them and it is much more likely that something goes wrong. There'll be plenty of opportunity for those young polar bears to have cubs in the future."

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