Celebrity Bear Growing Up Knut Celebrates Six Glorious Months

Knut turns half on June 5 after six glorious months for Berlin Zoo which has hand-reared the celebrity polar bear from a guinea pig-sized baby into a powerful 28-kilo fighter. He'll be spending the day munching fish and playfully biting his faithful keeper Thomas Dörflein. It's a friendship that can last six more months at most.

Knut turns six months on Tuesday, but Berlin Zoo isn't planning to mark the occasion with a gift-wrapped fish even though the celebrity polar bear cub has brought in hundreds of thousands of extra visitors this year.

"No presents," his keeper Thomas Dörflein told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "He gets so much to eat that he wouldn't even notice if he got anything special."

By the looks of him, Knut doesn't need extra rations. Under Dörflein's tireless round-the-clock care, Knut, rejected by his mother at birth, has ballooned to a chubby 28 kilos. That's three times heavier than when he stumbled into the global media limelight on March 23, the day of his first public appearance.

Tragically, his cuteness rating  is declining steadily. The white ball of fur with innocent black button eyes that melted millions of hearts has turned into a shaggy yellow bruiser with a long snout. He's already got four of the 42 teeth that will one day turn him into one of the world's most fearsome land-based predators.

"One day he'll be big enough to kill a seal with a single swipe of his paw," said Raimund Opitz, announcing one of Knut's twice-daily appearances last week. Opitz said Knut was getting so big that the zoo will end the shows in two or three months and put him on constant display in his own enclosure.

Public interest in Knut remains strong but is gradually declining. He now gets 4,000 to 5,000 visitors a day, down from the tens of thousands who queued up to see him most days in March and April.

Days of friendship numbered

He won't be fully grown for another four years, when he will weigh half a ton or more, but zoo vet Andre Schüle estimates that Dörflein will only be able to play with him for another six months. He'll be a year old then and weigh between 60 to 80 kilos.

"Dörflein is an experienced keeper, he will realize when he's no longer needed," said Schüle. "At some point Knut will no longer want this close contact with a person. He's getting used to his role as a loner."

The keepers say the cub regards Dörflein as his mother and is unlikely to attack him, but admit they can't be sure.

Last week the two still appeared to be the best of friends. Knut followed Dörflein around the enclosure like a faithful pet dog, sucked the keeper's thumb, enjoyed being pulled around on a rug and swimming with him in the moat surrounding his enclosure.

"He's getting bigger and stronger and his playing is getting rougher, even though he doesn't mean any harm," said Schüle.

Dörflein winced with pain and shielded himself with his arms as Knut bit him playfully in the crotch and backside, and he has taken to covering his hands with his sleeves. His trousers are torn from countless sessions playing with the bear.

Asked if he was ever in pain, Dörflein said: "He's only playing. It feels like pin pricks. But it can really hurt when he gets angry."

Devoted care

Dörflein no longer has to spend his nights on a bed next to Knut's wooden cot because the cub is happy to sleep on his own now, said Schüle. For months, Dörflein gave Knut the attention of an adoring mother, bottle-feeding him porridge, patting his back to burp him and rubbing him in baby oil as a substitute for his mother's fatty saliva.

He pinned photos of Knut's parents, Tosca and Lars, on the inside of his cot, built him a hammock, risked the bear's wrath each day by shoving a thermometer up his bottom and patiently played football with him. Two weeks ago he taught him how to swim.

Despite this close attention, Schüle rejected an accusation from the director of Rotterdam's zoo  that Knut was going to turn into a problem bear because he had too much contact with humans.

"We're not concerned about that at all. We had an experienced arctic photographer here who observed Knut and said he behaved just like polar bear cubs in the wild. Knut isn't going to be a problem," said Schüle.

The head of Rotterdam's Blijdorp zoo, where gorilla Bokito escaped last month and injured a visitor before wrecking a restaurant, said Berlin zoo had brought the ape up badly and said it had pampered Knut so much that he too would become a troublemaker.

Bokito, now 180 kilos, was hand-reared in Berlin Zoo and moved to Blijdorp two years ago. "Bokito's just like any other gorilla, he's just very agile and sporty. He's not a problem ape, he's just big," said Schüle.

Bokito crossed a 3.5-meter ditch and vaulted an electric fence in Blijdorp. He also briefly escaped from his cage while at Berlin zoo, sending visitors racing for the exits while he played with a bicycle.

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