Why Everbody Loves Cute Knut the Polar Bear

Knut the polar bear became symbol of a warming world.


BERLIN, April 28 2007 —, 2007 -- He waddles into view with the nonchalance of a rock star -- a foot-high fur ball who just makes everyone want to swoon.

Knut the polar bear cub is the Berlin zoo's newest and greatest attraction, pulling in 15,000 adoring German fans every day.

Andreas Ochs, a veterinarian at the zoo, is happily aghast at the attention lavished on the little bear. When asked why the cub causes such a stir, he said, "You know, you cannot declare it totally. It's like a pop star."

But Knut has gone way beyond pop stardom, as what began as a national story has quickly become an international sensation.

Superstar snapper Annie Leibowitz crowned Knut herself when she photographed the pint-size wonder for the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.

After the photo shoot, Knut collapsed on the spot for a well-earned nap, and Liebowitz said, "Goodnight Knut. Thank you for today. You're a superstar."

But what could have caused such a global ruckus? After all a bear, is a bear, is a bear, isn't it?

We decided to find out.

We got in touch with a guru of celebrity handling, David Hahn, CEO of Celebagents in London. Asked if he could shed any light on the Knut phenomenon, he chuckled and said, "Because he was rejected by the mother, it's the same feeling as being the loser. And people will always go with the underdog."

Ah ha, so maybe that's it? You see, Knut has not had the easiest childhood. First off his mother, Tosca, a traumatized behemoth rescued from a life as a circus performer, rejected Knut and his twin brother at birth.

Knut's brother, robbed of his mother's warmth, tragically succumbed to the chilly Berlin winter. Zoo vets stepped in quickly to save Knut from the same fate, deciding to raise him themselves rather than let him perish. A traumatic start to be sure, but his trials didn't end there.

Many animal rights advocates believe that the zoo authorities should have let the cub die, as is common in the wild when a mother rejects her young, rather than raise the cub within the confines of a zoo.

The bewildered zoo staff circled protectively around the cub, vowing that Knut would come to no harm. "He is very cute, and nobody could understand this," said Ochs.

But does narrowly averted destruction make a superstar?

Well, no. The marketing department at the Berlin zoo went into a merchandising overdrive, first prudently registering Knut as a brand before it unleashed all manner of Knut-branded items on a seemingly insatiable public.

Suddenly the Knut brand share price doubled. "Cute Knut" was everywhere, staring beguilingly from T-shirts, taking the shape of Knut teddy bears, enticing diners with his "Kinder Teller" or fish and chips and Knut sweets.

And then, just when you thought all your senses were catered to, a 9-year-old singer named Kitty recorded "Knut Der Kleine Eisbar." As you can imagine, Germany's No.1 spot had nowhere to hide, and "Kitty Und Knut" rocketed to the top.

Now, at this point, we thought we had a pretty good handle on what makes this particular polar bear quite so … well, cute. But before we could amble off, bathing in our newfound wisdom, Knut played his trump card.

Enter stage left, to much female intake of breath, Knut's rugged keeper, Thomas Dorflein. Dorflein has raised Knut since birth, bottle feeding him, sleeping in the same bed and playing Elvis songs on the guitar.

Dorflein has refused to do any interviews, exhibiting a coyness that has only fed the fires of his magnetic mystique. We met Nadine Baerwald, a teacher who was valiantly trying to control her Knut-candy-fueled class of apoplectically excited children as they filed past the bear's enclosure.

"They said on TV he has a girlfriend. But people just don't want to hear it," Baerwald said, referring to Dorflein. Knut is way too young for that kind of thing. "The bear may get mail as well, but the keeper does get love letters."

So what now? As Knut rapidly approaches the polar bear equivalent of adolescence, his pristine white coat now grubby from roughhousing with his keeper, his time in the limelight might be drawing to a close. Does the fact that he will soon be able to behead the dishy Dorflein with one lazy swipe of a paw sound the death knell on his superstar status?

Only time will tell. For now, cute Knut seems happy to bask in the love of his keeper, chew on a twig or two and fastidiously ignore the mayhem unfolding on the other side of his moat.

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