Berlin Struggles to Memorialize Knut the Polar Bear


At the moment, Ziolko's behind the wheel of his organization's van, driving through the Tierpark. Riding along in the backseat is Olaf Lange, who studied public management and works for the same organization. Lange is wearing a burgundy-colored two-piece suit, and both men peer out through the vehicle's windows. There's no place less glamorous than a zoo in the December rain. The view out the window alternates between mud, bare trees, a peacock, zookeepers in overalls, a freezing flamingo and more mud.

Ziolko pulls up in front of an enclosure. A polar bear roughly the color of dried tobacco is lying on the rock inside. This bear is more like Meat Loaf, the aging hard-rock musician, than Jim Morrison, too old to die young. Ziolko explains that, to be famous, an animal needs some kind of story. Bobby the Gorilla, the ape from the jungle, was Berlin's first animal star well before World War II. Knautschke, a hippopotamus, achieved fame in the 1950s for having survived the war. Heidi, the opossum from Leipzig whose crossed eyes skyrocketed her to stardom, evoked viewers' sympathy.

When it comes to Knut, you can sum up his story like this: Adorable baby bear is rejected by his mother, media reports claim there is a proposal to put him to sleep, the public catches wind of the alleged plan, a city is outraged, the adorable baby bear is saved.

Asked to describe Knut's personality, Ziolko says, "I didn't have direct contact with the animal." But he sees in Knut a symbol for the conservation of biodiversity and an ambassador for climate protection. That's the part he prefers; that's what he calls "Knut's true significance."

As he got older, Knut grew difficult. He liked snacking on croissants and was a complicated charge in other ways, as well. He started taking an interest in female polar bears and liked to roll around in the sand, which wasn't good for his fur. Knut couldn't care less what people thought of him. He just grew wilder -- and more spoiled. The Tragedy of Being Born Cute

Thomas Ziolko steers the van past a group of moose and says he's critical of all the Knut hype. There are gummy bear Knuts and porcelain Knuts, Knuts on stamps and Knuts on bankcards. Journalist Tom Kummer published an "interview" with the polar bear and there are several Knut films, as well as German pop singer Frank Zander's song "Hier kommt Knut" ("Here Comes Knut").

Ziolko finds it all rather unfair to those zoo denizens who aren't necessarily born cute. He points out a bearded vulture, then stops in front of a fence. Behind it stands a lazy herd of scraggly bovines, rain dripping from their coats. "Ah, the bison!" he says. The bison lift their heads, chewing all the while. Frankly, they look idiotic, and their coats stink. Ziolko, now sounding like a band manager, enthusiastically explains that the bison are extremely popular: "People know bison from movies about Indians."

On March 19, 2011, Knut collapsed in his enclosure's pool and drowned at the age of four. Pathology experts claim he had a seizure caused by encephalitis. His death brought an end to his career like that of so many stars who had rocketed to fame too young. It was a traumatic day for the polar bear's fans. Someone even suggested placing Knut's heart on an ice floe in the arctic as a sign that he would not be forgotten.

Ziolko parks the van. He and the Berlin Zoo will choose the winning design together. But he can already name a few that won't win. Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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