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How Did Knut Go From Super-Star Polar Bear to "Psycho-Bear"?

Imagine: You have been rescued as a newborn from a mother who rejected you and would likely have killed you. You have been in an incubator for 44 days then cared for 24 hours a day for months by someone who shows he loves you unconditionally. This individual is always there to feed and bathe you, to snuggle and play with you. You believe you can always rely upon him for meeting all your needs.

The public scrambles to see you because you are an adorable miracle. Important others and the media, on the other hand, view you as a cash cow. This human adulation, where you are the center of constant “ooh-ing” and “ah-ing” and applause, goes on for a nearly two years. You delight in it and come to feel it is your life, your entitlement. Then suddenly things change.

Because you are growing older, you are no longer as cute and cuddly to the public. They become somewhat less enamoured and attentive to you and the media has gone on to cover other things. You wonder where all the celebrity you have had and have been taught to expect has gone. Something is very wrong. Where is your surrogate dad when you need him? You feel there is a gaping hole in your heart, a gnawing aching emptiness that you need to fill but do not know how.

You long for your dad with whom you identify. You crave his undying love and attention. But the powers-that-be have dictated that he is no longer allowed to be with you where you live because of your increasing age. You have been permanently separated from your dad… and your heart. Your life is falling apart and you just do not understand what is going on.

You are lonely. You continue to look for the crowds and all their life-affirming applause. When no one is around, you cry and whimper. You cuddle with something that has the scent of your dad. It allows you to recall the glow of the warming, fun times. But then the lonely reality re-emerges and you cry plaintively. Because you are so confused and frustrated, you get angry and howl with rage. You also begin to act in seemingly “strange,” repetitive ways, like head bobbing, circling, and pacing the perimeter of your small living space.

Inconceivably, you are reunited for a short time with your rejecting mother who takes this opportunity to attack you. She and her two female companions carry out a campaign of “terror,” attacking and chasing you. You are only a youngster and do not understand why you are now the victim of such overwhelming pain and grief. Everything seems to be spiraling downward. Cut off from all your previous sources of love and attention, you wonder what you could have done to deserve all this.

You seem to be losing your grip on who you are supposed to be. But who is that really? More to the point, what is that? You do not know. The lines have been so blurred they are indistinguishable. You know only how you feel, which is terrible. And you want others to know it too… and bring back the love and attention.

Knut, the polar bear who was born on December 5, 2007, at the Berlin Zoo-the first to be born and survive there in 30 years-was an incredible marketing opportunity for the zoo. At the peak of his super-stardom he even graced the cover on Vanity Fair with Leonardo DiCaprio. But just a few years later he was almost a has-been: no longer white, fluffy, and adorably baby-like in all his playful antics. His dad, keeper and trainer Thomas Doerflein had died suddenly. In addition, the press had begun label him a “narcissist,” “psycho-bear,” and “publicity-addicted” because of his increasingly aggressive and idiosyncratic behavior. No keepers came near him now because he was seen as unpredictable and uncontrollable.

Seduced and abandoned by the age of four years old, he was still a child who would not achieve polar bear maturity until 10 or 11 years, potentially living 15-to-20 years in his “love-deprived” captivity. He had become an incredibly lonely outcast – neither polar bear nor human – because he was starving for his long-lost sense of belonging and being cared for.

On Saturday, March 19, 2011, before a crowd of 660 to whom he could no longer relate as he had in the past, he did his repetitive circling then had what appeared to be a seizure. He staggered along the rocks then fell backwards into the water of his moat… and drowned. While one can question the keeping of polar bears in captivity since these animals are designed to live in about 12,500 square miles of Arctic ice floe, the more important question is since we are going to keep them in captivity, how can we raise them so they know they are polar bears, not humans? How do we make sure they do not learn that their acceptance and worth come from human interaction? Knut’s short, sad life is a telling example of what can happen when we do not teach a polar bear it is its own species first, a bear.

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