(Jun 1, 2007)

Famous polar bear growing into an adult

By Madeline Chambers
From Reuters

BERLIN (Reuters) - Knut, Berlin Zoo's celebrity polar bear cub, is growing from a cuddly ball of fur into a shaggy, powerful predator who could soon pose a serious threat to his devoted human keeper who has nursed him from birth.

The cub, which still draws some 5,000 fans every day, turns six months on Tuesday and his 28 kg (62 pounds) are starting to show. His snout is longer, his torso chunkier and teeth sharper.

Thomas Doerflein, who for months slept in Knut's enclosure to feed him milk and porridge through the night, still rolls on the ground with the cub in his twice daily shows and lets him bite his fingers.

But he has taken to pulling his long sleeves over his hands to protect them and winces when the cub bites him on the bottom. Captivated admirers watch Doerflein duck and shoulder away Knut when he gets boisterous.

"He's just playing and it doesn't hurt, it just pinches a bit. It only hurts when he gets angry," the bearded Doerflein, who already has a few bruises, told Reuters.

In addition to porridge, the young star now tucks into fish, meat and cat food and is putting on around 200 grams a day.

Last week, he learned how to swim and Doerflein takes Knut for a walk round the Zoo every morning to build up his muscles. His coat is no longer white and fluffy, but yellow and shaggy.

"He is getting bigger and is gruffer than he used to be and is learning his role as a loner," said zoo vet Andre Schuele, who estimates that Knut will not be fully grown for another four years or so.

Knut was rejected by his mother, Tosca, and hit the headlines after an animal rights campaigner said hand-rearing polar bears violated animal rights. German media interpreted the comments as a call for Knut to be put down.

Since then, Knut has become a brand. He has his own song, DVD and book deal and features in a range of merchandise from soft toys and T-shirts to sweets.


Doerflein thinks he will be able to play with Knut until he is about a year-old, by which time the cub will be 60-80 kg, compared to about 500 kg when he is fully grown.

The keepers say the cub regards Doerflein as his mother and is therefore unlikely to attack him, but some experts fear he could get dangerous sooner and point to worrying precedents.

In the 1920s, a Norwegian explorer had to put down "Marie," a polar bear cub he had reared, after she attacked him. Historians put the cub's age at only four months, although some experts suspect she might have been older.

The zoo also rejects comparisons with Bokito, a gorilla raised in Berlin who burst out of his enclosure in Rotterdam Zoo last month and went on a rampage.

"You can't compare them: gorillas are social animals, polar bears are loners," said Schuele. "I have no worries that Knut will be a problem like that."

But the Zoo realizes the Knut show will not go on forever.

"Knut is getting too big for this and we will probably bring the shows to an end in two or three months," said Raimund Opitz, who gives visitors a running commentary.

The Zoo will consider moving Knut elsewhere after he is a year old. Several other zoos are keen to take on Knut to breed.

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