BERLIN >> A polar bear died and the zoo’s director decided to stuff its body and put it on display in a museum. (The director prefers the technical term, dermoplastik, though to most people it’s stuffed.)
And that would be that, except this polar bear was on the cover of Vanity Fair (beside Leonardo DiCaprio), has a fan club in Japan and followers in Fiji, and was the most famous four-legged resident of this city and the most renowned polar bear in the world.
We’re talking Knut, the Berlin Zoo’s hand-raised polar bear.
“When someone dies in your family I think you don’t want him stuffed in a museum,” said Jochen Kolbe, 31, who is leading a protest movement to block the planned taxidermy. “Knut is not only a polar bear for people, he is a friend, a family member.”
Now, hold on before casting any judgments. The nemesis of the anti-stuffing crowd is the zoo’s director, Bernhard Blaszkiewitz, a man whose zoo marketed this bear from birth, made millions off its presence, sold plush toy Knuts for nearly $30 and Knut baby videos for the same, and even registered “Knut” as a trademark. Now, Blaszkiewitz says he is shocked at how much people feel for this animal, who died, quite suddenly, at the age of 4 1/2 last month.
“The problem is, people take their human feelings and put them into animals,” he said, expressing astonishment at all the “silly presents” that mourners have deposited at the zoo, meaning the candles and flowers and posters.
It seems easy to poke fun at both sides in a conflict that has captivated this city at a time of political uncertainty in the nation and tragic uncertainty around the world. And that is what a lot of people here have done, from newspaper headlines with a mocking tone (aimed mostly at the anti-stuffing crowd), to snide online comments about people needing to get a life (yes, mostly aimed at those opposed) to harsh remarks about the director of the zoo (dubbed a dictator by Kolbe).
But the battle over Knut’s remains is a simple reminder that applying the formula of comparative importance to any conflict is meaningless to those touched by the conflict. This may not be Japan, or the Middle East, but loss still feels like loss. That is the message of the women on the bench in front of the polar bear enclosure at the zoo, the ones wearing buttons that read, “Knut Forever.”
“I don’t want to see him stuffed,” said Triste Dittrich, her eyes moist as she passed around color snapshots of Knut, as if handing out photos of grandchildren. “I want him to live on in my head as he was before, when he was alive.”
Doris Webb sat on the next bench, her arms crossed against an afternoon chill and a reporter’s question. “Are you going to make fun of us, too?” she asked, her Knut button proudly pinned to her chest.
“There are a lot of people who say ‘How can you be so upset when so many people have died in Japan?’ What do you know about how I feel about what happened in Japan? I’m grieving about a very special bear.”
To start at the beginning, Knut (pronounced Newt) was a cotton puff of a creature born at the Berlin Zoo on Dec. 5, 2006. The mother would have none of the cub, or his brother. The zookeepers scooped the two from the enclosure, and there arose the first controversy. Animal rights groups opposed allowing the cubs to be raised by humans. They said zookeepers should let them die.
But the image of a helpless ball of fluff generated an outpouring. The brother died, but the keeper, Thomas Dorflein, nurtured Knut with 24-hour care and bottles of baby formula and cod liver oil.
The world was watching.
In spring 2007, the zoo introduced its celebrity resident in what was dubbed “Knut Day,” inviting 400 journalists from around the world. The Knut phenomenon took off, much to the delight of a zoo that saw its revenue hit an all-time high that year, and its attendance surge.
Every birthday was marked with a fish and shrimp cake.
Webb said that once she and her husband retired, they visited the zoo nearly every day and that they found immense pleasure in watching Knut for hours at a time.
Apparently a lot of people did.
“The bond between man and the bear, this was something very special,” said Ergun Ozmen, a young man seated on the bench nearby Webb.
The Knut story was also shaped by tragedy, which made it more compelling to those drawn in. The bear’s trainer, Dorflein, a minor celebrity in his own right, died suddenly of a heart attack at age 44 in September 2008. Knut died just as suddenly, one Saturday last month. Standing on a rock, he spun in circles, had a seizure, then fell into the water, where he died.
“The problem is after the death of Knut there was all the overwhelming feelings,” said the director, Blaszkiewitz. “While that’s OK for humans, in my opinion it’s not OK for animals.”
That attitude is what generated opposition.
“We all met in Facebook, we all saw that we had the same interest against Knut being stuffed,” said Kolbe, describing a pattern of organizing now the same for conflicts big and small the world over. “We planned a demonstration at the zoo.”
About 100 protesters showed up, including Webb and the women on the bench. Although not everyone agreed on everything, they all agreed that the stuffing of Knut must be stopped.
“The people don’t want Knut in a museum, but what the zoo director says, will happen,” Kolbe said. “He is like a dictator.”
Blaszkiewitz said he just wants the fuss to end, and it will, because the corpse has already been sent out, its skin removed and the procedure well under way. “This is just a polar bear, a special polar bear, but a polar bear all the same,” he said.
To the people who bought the image of the bear the zoo had sold, that is the point.
“When things went bad and you didn’t feel well, then you came here and you felt better again,” said Anne Kreiner, as she visited the zoo. “I’m really against this; you wouldn’t stuff your pets.”