Obituary: Knut's Keeper Remembered

Thomas Dörflein put his everything into raising the young polar bear cub Knut at the Berlin Zoo. On Monday, the longtime zookeeper died of unknown causes in Berlin at the age of 44.

When the young polar bear Knut still cuddled with and sought sanctuary in the arms of his foster dad Thomas Dörflein, there still seemed to be a certain amount of order in the world. The pictures of the zookeeper together with Knut raced around the globe. On Monday, after Dörflein was found dead in an apartment in Berlin at the age of 44, that world seemed shattered.

Dörflein had taken a vacation day from the Berlin Zoo and was visiting a friend when he collapsed without saying anything, according to the Berlin mass-circulation daily Bild. According to the German news agency DPA, the world-famous zookeeper had been battling a serious illness for an extended period of time.

Police said there was no evidence of foul play or suicide. On Tuesday, the city prosecutor's office ordered an autopsy so as to determine the exact cause of Dörflein's death.

News of the beloved zookeeper, who had worked for more than 25 years at the Berlin Zoo, left many in the city distraught. "This is a terrible loss for us," zoo director Bernhard Blaszkiewitz told the local B.Z. newspaper. "But I would like to express my sympathies to everyone who is mourning his death -- his family, his children, his girlfriend and his friends."

In a statement, the group Friends of the Berlin Zoo stated: "With the passing of Thomas Dörflein, the zoo has lost a highly dedicated zookeeper who had great passion for his job and his calling." According to the group, Dörflein played the decisive role in turning Berlin "into a sensational attraction with the polar bear cub." Zoo biologist Heiner Klös added: "I am shocked by the passing of my best zookeeper, a man who gave his all for his animals."

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who is Knut's honorary godfather, said he was dismayed over Dörflein's death. "I got to know Thomas Dörflein last year, and I admired how intensely and arduously he took care of Knut and the other animals entrusted to him," Gabriel told Hanover's Neue Presse newspaper.

"The Berlin Zoo has lost one of its most popular figures," said Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit. "As Knut's 'foster dad,' Thomas Dörflein became known far beyond Berlin as a sympathetic, dedicated person. I am devastated by his sudden death, and I hope that we are able to learn more about the circumstances of his death in the next few days."

Knut's Savior

Millions of fans at the Berlin Zoo enjoyed watching Dörflein romp about an enclosure with young Knut, who was rejected at birth by his mother Tosca, a former East German circus performer. Although they came to see the lumbering polar bear cub, many were also enamored by his keeper, who had taken care of Knut 24-hours-a-day for the first few months after his birth.

From the date of his birth on Dec. 5, 2006, Knut and Dörflein shared a special bond that enchanted millions of visitors. When Dörflein began bottle-feeding the cub, it weighed only 810 grams (1.7 pounds). Knut's twin brother died after only four days, but Dörflein was able to save Knut. "They were both so helpless," Dörflein once said in an interview. "And it's very clear that you have a human instinct that tells you that you absolutely want to help -- and that you have to." A second magical moment for the zookeeper came when Knut, by then a bouncing baby boy, opened his eyes for the first time and looked at Dörflein. "When an animal looks at you like that, it changes everything."

What followed was something the world had never seen before: the "Knut Show." For two hours each day, thousands of fans from all over the world flooded the zoo to get their chance to watch Knut frolic with Dörflein, playing with toys, blankets, learning to swim and generally getting himself sandy and dirty as he wrestled with his keeper. Whether he wanted to become a star or not, his role as Knut's foster dad catapulted Dörflein to celebrity status in Germany and abroad. It's a status he said made him feel uncomfortable. "It's very strange to me," he said as his mailbox overflowed with letters containing marriage proposals. He said he only cared about Knut's welfare and the joy of playing with him.

Nursing Knut to Health -- with the King

The year of Knut's birth, Dörflein and his family spent both Christmas and New Year's Eve with the polar bear cub. Day and night, Dörflein -- who wore his hair in a ponytail and also had a beard -- would hand-feed Knut with a bottle, rub baby oil on the cub and then put him to bed while playing his guitar. At one point, the polar bear cub even survived 40-degree fever thrusts, sleeping his way back to health as Dörflein sang Elvis songs.

But Dörflein also experienced setbacks and a stream of bad news. The zoo directors put an end to the daily "Knut Show" earlier than Dörflein had wanted. Zoo officials feared for Dörflein's safety as "Cute Knut" grew into what would eventually be a massive bear capable of easily killing a human. But the decision left Dörflein steaming for some time. For a while, he violated those orders and continued to play with Knut. Then, early in the summer of 2008, Dörflein was conspicuously absent.

In public, the zookeeper mostly kept a low profile, but he did accept the city of Berlin's highest honor, the Medal of Merit, for his services to the city, and he also attended a reception with his girlfriend hosted by German President Horst Köhler at his residence in Berlin's Bellevue Palace.

According to the daily Die Welt, Dörflein was born in 1963 in Berlin's Wedding neighborhood and grew up in the Spandau district. After three years of training, he took a job as a zookeeper at the Berlin Zoo, with responsibility for its apes, predators and cliff-dwelling animals.

In 1987, he became responsible for the zoo's bear enclosures as well as wolves and later greyhounds and coatimundis. According to the obituary, Dörflein had two grown children and lived together with his girlfriend and their primary-school-aged son.

Knut proved to be a massive magnet for visitors at the zoo. For the first time in the its 164-year history, it attracted more than 3 million people in 2007, when the "Knut Show" played out daily, a 27-percent increase over the previous year. The surge of visitors resulted in record profits of €6.8 million ($10 million) for the zoo.

dsl -- with wire reports

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