Knut the polar bear, knut, polar bears in captivity
Miguel Villagran/AP

Celebrity Polar Bear Knut Too Big for Berlin

December 05, 2008 02:30 PM
by Isabel Cowles
Knut, the polar bear featured on the cover of Vanity Fair last year, has grown too large for his enclosure at the Berlin Zoo and will likely be moved.

Knut Not So Adorable Anymore

The polar bear that posed for Annie Liebowitz with Leonardo DiCaprio, making his debut appearance on the cover of Vanity Fair’s Green issue last year, has become too big of a celebrity—literally.

Knut, Berlin’s star polar bear, celebrates a bittersweet second birthday today. Last year, at the height of his cuteness and fame, Knut got a giant marzipan cake for his birthday. This year, he’s getting a frozen quiche and the threat of eviction.

What went wrong? Knut grew up. Now that he is full grown, Knut’s fur has turned from fluffy white to long and yellow, and at 440 pounds, Knut is now far too large for his enclosure.

Knut fans have lobbied for him to remain in Berlin, but authorities at the zoo say that a lack of space prevents them from building a new pen to accommodate Knut.

Furthermore, Knut will reach sexual maturity at age six and the zoo will require a space large enough to accommodate both him and a mate. The zoo will also need to find Knut a mate; the two female bears at the zoo will be too old by the time Knut is ready.

According to The Associated Press, there is no shortage of zoos willing to take on the “cover bear.” Zoos in Germany, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Estonia and Spain have all offered Knut a female mate and a new home.

In all, the Berlin Zoo credits Knut with a 27 percent increase in visitors last year and profits of nearly seven million euros from Knut-ty paraphernalia like DVDs, T-shirts and more, the AP reports.

But a Discover magazine blog notes Knut’s new adult image isn’t selling as well as it did in the days when he was “The Britney Spears of zoo animals”:  “Nowadays, he is often cranky and only rouses from his naps to eat,” the blog explains. In an ironic turn of events, “Knut was once an icon of the environmental movement, but some say his transfer to a new zoo may be funded by Gazprom, the Russian energy giant.”

Background: Polar bears in captivity

In 2003, Oxford scientists published a study in the journal Nature that examined the risks of keeping certain animals in captivity, noting that polar bears were among the most difficult to maintain. According to a New York Times report on the study, polar bears fared worse than most large animals because the area they cover in the wild is so much larger than the space they inhabit when captive.

“In an average year,” the Times explained, “a polar bear can roam over an area as large as greater London, yet their zoo enclosures are often a million times smaller.” Keeping polar bears in small spaces can lead to neurotic behavior, including pacing for hours on end.

However, despite the difficulty of keeping them in captivity, many zoologists argue that breeding polar bears in a controlled space can help foster their dwindling population in the wild and can keep them safe amid threats to their natural habitat.

In 2005, the Edinburgh Zoo appeared to have reneged on its promise to stop keeping polar bears after their current bear, Mercedes, dies. Although some activists protested this decision, Iain Valentine, head of animals, education and conservation at the zoo, said, “Polar bears do form part of our collection plan and that’s absolutely right considering the state of polar bears in the wild. They are now under threat through climate change.”

Related Topic: World loses oldest captive polar bear

On Nov. 18, 2008, keepers at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, Manitoba, mourned the death of Debby, who had lived at the zoo since 1967. At 42, Debby was listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s oldest captive polar bear.

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