An adorable polar bear cub who has won the hearts of Berliners has just about escaped the death sentence that animal rights activists had imposed on him
Knut is the first baby polar bear to survive in the Berlin zoo in 30 years. His mother, Tosca, a grumpy 20-year-old former circus bear, abandoned him and his brother to die on a rock in the bear pit after they were born on Dec. 5, 2006.
Keepers scooped the cubs out of the compound with fishing net and placed both bear babies in an incubator.
Only Knut survived, and he was brought up as a pampered baby, fed with human milk and cod-liver oil every half hour. Now that he's almost 4 months old, he is fed chicken puree, sleeps with a teddy bear, plays with a football and his keeper strums Elvis Presley songs to improve his mood.
That treatment, however, has brought complaints from animal rights campaigners. They claimed it is inappropriate to raise a polar bear baby by a human hand. One group even considered it a blatant violation of animal welfare laws and threatened to take the zoo to court.
Wolfram Graf-Rudolf, director of the zoo in Aachen, Germany, told ABC News, "I've experienced bottle-feeding three baby bears myself years ago, and I remember how tough it was for the little ones, when they grew up and had to be separated from their keepers. For as long as they are cute little things, everything is easy. But there were huge problems once they grew up.
"The animal will now be fixated on his keeper and not be a 'real' bear; he could not survive in the wild. One should have the courage to put him to sleep much earlier, but now it is too late, the mistake has been made and the zoo now has to raise the bear."
Some animal rights activists even called for the zoo to kill the baby bear with T61, a poison that kills in two seconds.
Those claims have provoked a public outcry and little Knut has become a media celebrity. A headline in the German tabloid Bild Zeitung asked "Must sweet Knut be killed?" The next day, some Berlin children were out on the streets angrily protesting with hand-drawn posters reading "Knut must live" and "Knut is cute."
Six-year-old Celina was quoted by Bild Zeitung, saying, "How can adults be so mean? I would be terribly sad if Knut must die!" and Tobias, 5, told the newspaper, "Knut is such a lovely baby bear. They must let him live! I thought the zoo is protecting animals, not killing them."
Criticism also came from other experts. Wolfgang Apel, head of the German Animal Protection League, also called for the polar bear cub to be saved. "We cannot put him to sleep; he has a right to live! Of course, Knut is very cute to look at and because of that, people tend to forget that it is a wild animal. We should take this case to examine whether it is appropriate to keep polar bears in zoos rather than the wilderness, where they belong."
Others believe Knut will always be a bear, no matter where he grows up.
Polar bears are certainly dangerous when fully grown. Two polar bears in the zoo in Bremerhaven, in northern Germany, badly injured a keeper last year while playing, and a Dutch man had his skull bashed in by a polar bear on the Norwegian island of Spitzbergen.
All those concerns, however, mean nothing to little Knut. The zoo reports that he is starting to become a bit of a handful as he gets bigger -- suggesting that the bear is maybe not becoming as human as some animal experts fear. "The many bruises that his keeper has show that Knut has discovered he is a bear," Ragnar Kuehne, the zoo spokesman told ABC News.
Now more famous than ever, Knut's first public appearance -- likely to happen later this week -- will become a real media event.
The zoo had previously said he would go on display when he weighed about 18 pounds. That target has been reached, and Heiner Kloes, a zoo spokesman, told the news agency DPA that Knut would make his debut appearance once Berlin recovers from a current cold spell.