The Knut Dispute Zoos Face Off in Polar Bear Brouhaha

He's the world's most popular polar bear, and he's brought thousands together. But for two German zoo directors he's the focus of a simmering dispute about who really owns the once "Cute Knut."

By Wiebke Hollersen

At the time, the deal in the contract was that Neumünster would get the odds and Berlin would get the evens. For Berlin, at least, that turns out to have been an unfortunate deal, says Peter Drüwa, director of the Neumünster Zoo. But, Drüwa adds, the legal situation is still crystal clear: "The first, third, fifth -- they're ours."

This particular contract from 1999, which deals with the loaning out and breeding of polar bears, has become so important that Drüwa prefers to not even show "the document" to visitors. The contract is about Knut, the world's most famous polar bear. Money and influence come into play, and even an ultimatum. It's Neumünster against Berlin, zoo against zoo.The crux of the matter is that Neumünster loaned Lars, Knut's father, to the Berlin Zoo. And so it is Drüwa, 63, who should decide Knut's fate.

Genealogy of a Dispute

Drüwa has a white beard and the healthy skin tone of someone who spends a lot of time outdoors. He takes small, quick steps as he rushes to give a tour of his zoo while there's still a bit of daylight. Neumünster is a small city in northern Germany between Hamburg and Kiel, and a bus leaves the main train station every 40 minutes for the zoo. An older couple is just leaving the park, but otherwise there are no visitors today. It's just after 3 p.m. and it is drizzling.

The Neumünster Zoo boasts 700 animals. Drüwa points out the reindeer, the Barbary macaques, the penguins. All the while, a mobile phone hidden in his jacket rings almost ceaselessly. The call volume undoubtedly has something to do with the press release Drüwa put out this morning about Knut and its ultimatum to the Berlin Zoo. He wrote Berlin and asked for information -- in writing and by Dec. 19 -- about whether the Berlin Zoo intends to keep Knut and, if so, what expanded facilities they have envisioned for him.

Neumünster has had polar bears since 1997, when Drüwa acquired two: a young male and an older female. It was a good combination, he points out, since polar bears need older females to help raise them. That young male polar bear was Lars.

Two years later, Lars was seven years old, well raised and sexually mature, and Drüwa loaned him to Berlin. Polar bears are kept in zoos in order to breed more bears and preserve the species. At that point, the female polar bear in Neumünster was 28, and, as Drüwa sees it, too old for breeding. In Berlin, there were four potential females for Lars. But, for a long time, nothing happened.

The Zoo at the Zoo

Then, at last, something did. On Dec. 5, 2006, a female polar bear in Berlin named Tosca gave birth to two male cubs. But she rejected the cubs, and one of them died just a few days later. The other survived in an incubator. That bear turned out to be Lars' first surviving offspring. That made it an odd-numbered polar bear -- or, in other words, Drüwa's polar bear.

In late January 2007, Drüwa traveled to Berlin to have a look. At the time, Berlin's newspapers were just starting to publish reports about the baby polar bear, the first to be born in the Berlin Zoo in 33 years. Local public broadcaster RBB started regularly airing clips of the bear as it was being raised. Viewers could watch how Knut -- a tiny ball of soft, white fur -- cried for his bottle, was weighed and took his first steps.

Peter Drüwa, director of the Neumünster Zoo.

Peter Drüwa, director of the Neumünster Zoo.

Drüwa was happy to see his polar bear thriving. In March 2007, Knut was shown to the public at the Berlin Zoo for the first time, and hundreds of visitors and journalists from all over the world crowded in front of the bear's enclosure, a number of them even reporting live. Then, Knut was featured on the cover of the American magazine Vanity Fair, and German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel declared himself the bear's godfather.

Thomas Dörflein, Knut's keeper, -- who recently passed away -- started getting love letters in the mail. The zoo had Knut postcards and T-shirts made, and it sold rights to companies making stuffed animal and gummy bears.

Whose Fair is Fair?

Meanwhile, back in Neumünster, Drüwa sometimes thought about the Beatles, who had also caused an uproar that no one could really explain. And he often thought about his contract with the Berlin Zoo, too.

The Neumünster Zoo also had its share of Knut stuffed animals, and a few of them can still be found lying around the single room that serves jointly as a ticket counter, storage space and waiting room for the director's office. The Berlin Zoo had never made an agreement with him about the marketing associated with Knut, Drüwa says. "When somebody is doing things with your property," he now asks, "what do you do?"

The Neumünster Zoo is run by an association made up of more than 2,000 members. They get to see Knut on TV and in the newspapers, but the zoo doesn't get a cut of the proceeds from Knut's marketing. A lawyer on the board of directors is currently familiarizing himself with Knut's legal status.

Early in the year, the association contacted the Berlin Zoo and suggested that the two zoos settle out of court about how to share Knut-related earnings. But, later in the year, after Berlin indicated its unwillingness to do so, Neumünster filed a lawsuit. The Berlin Zoo is now being asked to disclose how much it has earned from Knut and Knut-related merchandising. The case will be heard by a Berlin's district court on May 19, 2009, at 9:30 a.m.

According to Drüwa, the dispute doesn't just revolve around the financial aspects related to the famous polar bear. For him, it's primarily a zookeeping issue. As Drüwa sees it, the question of where and how Knut lives should be resolved by the owner -- meaning by the Neumünster Zoo and ultimately himself.


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