The man who reared Knut the polar bear has died. Berlin police confirmed on Monday that Thomas Dörflein had been found dead in his apartment. The man who acted as the tiny bear's surrogate parent when he was rejected by his own mother became something of a star in his own right as the world was gripped by Knut-mania last year.
A police spokeswoman said that there is no evidence of any foul play and gave no further details, apart from stating that the investigation was ongoing. The 44-year-old was found in an apartment in the Berlin district of Wilmersdorf. According to the German news agency DPA, Dörflein had been seriously ill for some time.
Dörflein took over the care of Knut, who was born on Dec. 6, 2006, after the tiny cub's mother Tosca had rejected him. Dörflein spent several weeks with the baby bear at the zoo and even spent Christmas in the cage with Knut.
In March of 2007 he accompanied Knut on his first public appearance at Berlin Zoo, when he was photographed by the world's media. The ensuing global interest made both the polar bear and his keeper media stars. The two had a special rapport, with Knut following his keeper around like a puppy. But then as the bear grew he became too dangerous to frolick with his adored minder, and last November the zoo decided it was best if all contact was cut off.
Last October the bearded, long-haired zookeeper was awarded Berlin's Medal of Merit in honor of his round-the-clock care of Knut.
Dörflein is survived by his partner, two grown-up children and a six-year-old son.
smd -- with wire reports