BERLIN — Berlin's beloved polar bear Knut, an international star who as a cuddly, fluffy cub graced magazine covers, movies and merchandise, died Saturday. His death at the young age of 4 took zookeepers and animal experts by surprise.
The celebrity bear died suddenly in his compound at the Berlin Zoo on Saturday afternoon, said bear keeper Heiner Kloes. Knut waded into the water in his enclosure before having a short spasm and then dying in front of hundreds of zoo visitors.
While the life expectancy of polar bear in the wild is between 15 and 20 years, animals in captivity can live even longer because they are not exposed to hunger, thirst or infections. A postmortem will be conducted on Monday to try to pinpoint the cause of death, Kloes said.
Knut's death was met by an immediate outpouring of sorrow. As the news of his death spread through the city, more Knut fans showed up at the zoo, assembling in front of the bear compound to mourn his loss.
Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit called Knut's death "awful," telling the B.Z. daily, "We all held him so dear."
"He was the star of the Berlin zoos," he said.
Abandoned at birth on Dec. 5, 2006, along with his twin brother, who only survived a couple of days, Knut first attracted attention when his main caregiver, Thomas Doerflein, camped out at the zoo to give the button-eyed cub his bottle every two hours. Doerflein cuddled and played with him at daily public appearances to the delight of thousands of people who came to watch.
Fan clubs sprung up across the globe, including in Japan, the United States and Germany. Fans followed his every move, including his weight battle — he had a weakness for croissants — or plans to move to a different zoo.
"Knutmania" led to a 2007 Vanity Fair cover with actor Leonardo DiCaprio shot by photographer Annie Leibovitz, a film and plush likenesses. Though the zoo has never released exact numbers, Knut merchandise including postcards, key chains, candy and stuffed Knuts have brought in hundreds of thousands of euros.
Knut grew rapidly, weighing a hulking 440 pounds by age 2, and trading in white fluff for yellowish fur. Doerflein, the zookeeper who raised him, died in 2008 of a heart attack, earning front-page headlines in German newspapers as "Knut's daddy."