BERLIN, Dec. 5, 2007 -- Knut, Berlin's famous polar bear, had his first birthday party today and about 700 visitors from all over Germany flocked to the zoo to join in.
The bear they came to see was no longer the cuddly little teddy bear romping with a soccer ball, but a 245-pound eating machine. But to Berliners, he was still cute little Knut.
"We came from Stuttgart," Reinhold Strecker told ABCNEWS.com. "I brought my wife and my mother-in-law here so we could celebrate Knut's birthday. My wife and my entire family are so fond of him and it's such fun to see him doing well. We've been following the news about him and I must say, just for a change, it's nothing but good news."
The cheerful crowd applauded when Knut was given his birthday cake made of boiled rice, bananas and raisins. A group of school kids sang "Happy birthday to Knut," turning this otherwise gray day into a celebrity party.
Nursery school teacher Marlees Pilgrim surprised her 18 kids with a visit to the zoo so they could join in the celebration. "Many of the kids have been to the zoo to visit Knut, and many kids know him well, but today is a special day not only for Knut, but also for the kids that have seen him grow over the summer."
Berlin zoo's director gave a little speech in which he reminded the visitors that it was not always easy raising the polar bear.
Knut and his twin brother were abandoned by their mother, Tosca, a grumpy 20-year-old bear, after they were born Dec. 5, 2006.
Keepers had scooped the cubs out of the bear's compound with a fishing net and placed both 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. When he was 4 months old, his keeper fed him chicken puree and vegetables. Later on, croissants and grapes became his favorite snacks.
That treatment brought complaints from animal rights campaigners who complained it was inappropriate to raise a polar bear by human hand.
One group even suggested it was a blatant violation of animal welfare and some animal rights activists called for the zoo to euthanize the baby bear with T61, a poison that kills in seconds.
Those calls have long since been muted and Knut has become the darling of Berliners, attracting more than 2.5 million visitors in the last year.
Veterinarian Andre Schuele told ABCNEWS.com today: "He's grown into a beautiful bear and we're very happy about that. Of course, he still has a relationship with humans, which would not be the case in the wild nature because there his mother would have taken care of his upbringing. But apart from that, he's a polar bear just like all other polar bears grown up in captivity."
Knut, who was completely unbothered by all the fuss going on outside of his compound, now weighs a hefty 245 pounds and is almost fully grown. In fact, earlier this year he went on a diet amid concerns that he was putting on too much weight snacking on his croissants and grapes.
"I sure hope they keep Knut a little longer. The kids are going nuts over him," said Britta Thiesen, referring to speculation among zoo visitors that Knut might have to move to another zoo at some point.
When asked about that possibility, Schuele said, "Of course, we want him to mate with other zoos' females and have him take part in breeding, just like other bears in captivity, but he's way too young now. We'll wait at least until fall of next year before we move him to live at another zoo."
Berliners would take that move as bad news, but there may be good news around the corner. Knut may have some siblings before too long. Tosca and the other female bears at the Berlin zoo have all been mating with Knut's father, Lars. If any of the female bears are pregnant, the cubs should be born by the end of December.