March 24, 2007 in Nation/World

Activist’s threat no match for polar bear’s cute factor

Matthew Schofield McClatchy
 
The Spokesman-Review photo

Knut the polar bear has his first public appearance in the Berlin Zoo on Friday. The bear has received a wealth of publicity after an animal-rights activist suggested putting him down.
(Full-size photo)

BERLIN – Little Knut, the baby polar bear who took his first public walk here Friday, didn’t attract much controversy before the call for his execution by lethal injection.

For the German public, the 20-pound baby eisbaer (polar bear) was too cuddly and cute to deserve euthanasia. There were oohs and ahs when he played with the teddy bears put in his nursery and sucked the thumb of his keeper. Many were teary-eyed at the sad tale of how his mother, Tosca the circus bear, rejected him after birth.

And then came animal-rights activist Frank Albrecht, who a week ago told Germany’s largest newspaper, Bild, that Little Knut should be put to death.

“Raising him by hand is not appropriate to the species, but rather a blatant violation of animal welfare rights,” he said. “In actual fact, the zoo needs to kill the bear cub.”

A handful of German animal experts agreed that a polar bear shouldn’t be raised by bottle. But the zoo never seriously considered putting him down – certainly not in a country so in love with animals that dogs are welcome in most restaurants.

Nonetheless, Albrecht’s views stirred popular passions.

School children took to the streets, chanting, “Knut must live.” The headlines called him “The Polar Bear of our Hearts.” He even replaced the daily topless model in a couple daily newspapers.

T-shirts were printed and Web sites launched. Soccer fans chanted for him instead of their teams. The CD of songs about Little Knut comes out today. For the past week, telecasts nationwide have been filled with pleas to let him live.

“Everyone is thrilled Knut survived,” Berliner Andreas Kunitz said as he waited for a first glimpse of the bear Friday.

When he took that walk into the bear enclosure, Knut faced a thicket of cameras and perhaps a thousand reporters from places such as Australia, Japan and Uzbekistan.

“It started with a couple photos of a cute little bear,” explained Kevin Hoffmann, reporter for Berlin’s Kurier newspaper. “Then it just kind of went out of control. Tomorrow, our competition is planning 10 pages of stories and photos.”

Bears have special meaning in Berlin, serving as the city’s mascot, but Knut, the baby polar bear, has a new mission. Sigmar Gabriel, a German cabinet minister, said at Knut’s public debut Friday he hopes the bear would contribute to more people “becoming active in working against climate change.”


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