Berlin Struggles to Memorialize Knut the Polar Bear

PHOTO: Knut the polar bear is seen at the Berlin Zoo, June 15, 2007 in Germany.
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Thomas Ziolko heads a committee charged with selecting an official monument for Knut, the star bear at the Berlin Zoo that died in March after rocketing to worldwide fame. But it's a thankless task, he finds, a one that does injustice to animals not born cute and with a dramatic story.

Thomas Ziolko studies the photographs, drawings and plaster models arrayed on the table in front of him. There's a languid creature rolling around on its back atop a gravestone, a bear with a toilet brush in its jaws and what appears to be a pile of fur with a lopsided grin on a pedestal. Ziolko looks somewhat at a loss.

Ziolko is chair of the "Friends of the Tierpark Berlin and the Berlin Zoo," an association that supports both of the German capital's zoos: the "Tierpark," or "animal park," in the former East Berlin, and the zoo in the former West. In early November, the group announced a competition to design a statue of Knut, the Berlin Zoo's world-famous polar bear who died earlier this year. It will be Knut in bronze, a monument to a star of the animal kingdom, slated to be unveiled at the zoo in the spring, on the anniversary of Knut's death. Close to 30 people submitted designs.

When asked about the submissions, Ziolko gives an ambivalent, "Yeah, the designs."

One 66-year-old retiree sent a photograph of an oil painting he did himself, adding the comment, "I have attended several painting courses at a community college." One sculptor suggested €15,000 ($20,000) was too small a budget for the statue -- his design would cost €45,000, plus tax. Just a few days ago, another artist rolled his enormously heavy submission right into Ziolko's office: a Knut made entirely of welding rods. When Ziolko took a closer look at the sculpture, he discovered the shapes of a nose, two eyes and a mouth worked into Knut's upper left leg. It was the face of Thomas Dörflein, Knut's keeper, the artist explained. But Ziolko suspects it's more likely the face of the artist.

Three Memorials, One Bear

Ziolko, 39, studied business and says he's by no means looking to become an amateur zoologist, even if his desk does happen to be located in an administrative building in the city district of Friedrichsfelde, just behind the Tierpark. He wears a pinstripe suit, not a zookeeper's overalls, and works as a fundraiser and something like a lobbyist on behalf of the city's zoos.

The proposed designs for Knut's memorial are laid out on a table between the mailroom and the employees' kitchen. Ziolko knows how high expectations are for the statue. Knut's untimely death only served to make the young polar bear even more popular. It's the Jim Morrison effect, Knut as Cobain.

Many of Knut's fans feel the memorial has taken too long. A marble plaque with an imprint of a bear's paw already adorns Dörflein's grave, honoring the zookeeper who raised Knut by hand after the bear's mother rejected him. Meanwhile, the city's natural history museum is interested in taxidermically preserving Knut's hide and putting it on display. Indeed, it appears Berlin will soon have not one but three Knut memorials, which Ziolko finds excessive.

Animals with Stories

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