They came to Berlin from all over the world. From Connecticut. From Belgium. From Tokyo. And all had a single mission in mind: Knut, the star polar bear at the Berlin Zoo, turned one year old on Wednesday, and his biggest fans -- even those from far, far away -- wanted to be there to celebrate with him.
"I arrived in Berlin yesterday and went straight to the zoo," said Jasmin Sambrano, 57, who came all the way from Caracas, Venezuela just to help Knut blow out the candle. "Seeing him for the first time was like a meditative experience because there weren't many people here and everyone was so quiet. When I saw him, I just started crying."
Sambrano was just one of hundreds of Knut fans -- most of them retirees due to the midday timing of the festivities -- who made the pilgrimage to his enclosure on Wednesday for the birthday do. The bear himself was on his best behavior, wandering as close as he could to his guests and displaying all of his cutest poses and moves. When his birthday cake was brought out -- a divine mixture of veggies, fruits, a whole fish and ice cream -- Knut picked delicately at the greens, licked the wooden "candle" and then upended the whole thing to get to the ice cream at the bottom. A group of young children sang "Happy Birthday" from a nearby jungle gym.
Rocket to Stardom
"He is a bit on the chunky side, but that isn't such a big deal," Zoo Director Bernhard Blaszkiewitz said during his birthday oration, explaining why his young charge didn't get his favorite food, butter croissants, for his meal. "I wish for Knut that he lives 30 or 40 years and that he reproduces. But given his looks, I don't think that will be much of a problem."
If, that is, his future dates don't mind a polar bear who is often more gray than he is white. Knut on Wednesday elected to forego a birthday bath and was filthy from the shoulders up, a product of playing in the Berlin mud. But then, a star of his stature hardly needs to worry about his looks. Knut was born to Tosca, a former circus performer, last winter, but was rejected by his mother. His twin brother died four days later, but Knut was hand-reared by zookeeper Thomas Dörflein. Indeed, it was Dörflein's romps with the little white fluff ball once he was old enough to play outside that helped Knut rocket to stardom around the world.
The media circus has died down now that the Berlin bear weighs well over 100 kilos (220 pounds) and is no longer as cute as he once was, but the satellite trucks and television crews from Japan, Canada, Spain and elsewhere were on hand Wednesday for the big event.
And his hundreds of guests couldn't care less that Knut is well on his way to adulthood. Many at the zoo on Wednesday were locals who have made a habit of regularly dropping by to check up on the polar bear. "When I am feeling bad, I come here to see him and I feel much better afterwards," said Berlin resident Ann Kreiner, 62, who had brought a stocking full of goodies for her ursine friend.
'I Simply Had to See the Boy in Person'
But a good number of Knut disciples were seeing their furry guru for the first time. The Caracas contingent was just one of a number of Knut bloggers who came for the event, all wearing scarves -- reading "Dec. 5, Two Thousand and Knut" -- so they could find each other. Judy Lydecker, 59, from Winsted, Connecticut, was one of them. She's visiting Berlin for just six days and plans to come to the zoo every day.
"It just hit me in September that I had to be here," said Lydecker, who sported a panda bag and was wearing a Native American bear symbol around her neck in addition to the Knut scarf. "This is a once in a lifetime event. I simply had to see the boy in person."
Just how long the bear's fans will be coming to Berlin to see Knut remains a topic of great speculation in the German capital. For now, the pre-pubescent polar bear is uninterested in girls, but the search is already on for a mate. Given the limited space for polar bears in Berlin, Knut will likely be the one to follow his future true love elsewhere. And the competition is stiff. Indeed, the zoo director of Neumünster even sent along a birthday letter and a basketball for Knut to remind zoo administrators in Berlin that they're interested.
"For the next year, he will be staying in Berlin," assured zoologist Ragnar Kühne, who works at the Berlin Zoo. "He has a very good enclosure here. At the moment he doesn't need any other bears."
On Wednesday, though, guests were more concerned with admiring one-year-old and eating the vast birthday cake -- for humans -- on hand for the event, than with speculating about his future.
And they sang his praises. "From the moment I saw him, I fell in love," gushed Christine Falaise, 33, who brought chocolates from her home town in Belgium to give to Knut's keeper Dörflein. "He is so sweet and cute. He somehow provides a connection between humans and animals, and that doesn't happen very often."
With reporting by Lucy Christie and Lisa Sonnabend