Knut is in for a big weekend. Berlin's world famous polar bear baby may have to celebrate his very first Easter without his beloved trainer Thomas Dörflein, but tens of thousands of visitors will likely be there to keep the fuzzy white fluff ball company. Indeed, the Berlin Zoo is anticipating up to 40,000 visitors a day over the holiday weekend -- well over 10 times the normal number of daily zoo-goers in April.
In preparation, the zoo is setting up a number of metal barricades in an attempt to control the traffic around Knut's enclosure. New groups of visitors will be allowed into the viewing area every 15 minutes to watch the little guy roll around in his blankie and romp through his mini-pond during his hour-long public appearances. The zoo estimates that by the end of the week, a total of 300,000 people will have come to visit Berlin's new mascot since he was first presented to the German capital on March 23. Last year, the Berlin Zoo had 2.5 million visitors.
But even as Knut's popularity continues to grow, there are signs that times may be changing for him. Even though polar bears in the wild stay with their mothers for up to two years, Knut's separation from Dörflein, who has provided the baby bear with virtual round-the-clock care since his Dec. 5 birth, will likely come much sooner.
Knut was visibly unhappy about Dörflein's Easter vacation earlier this week and the keeper himself also admitted to a bit of separation anxiety. But given how quickly Knut is growing -- he's already over 10 kilograms (22 pounds) -- the writing is on the wall. "Honestly, as much as I like him," Dörflein told the celebrity rag Bunte on Wednesday, "I am looking forward to returning to my normal life."
The cuddly baby bear too, it seems, has quite a bit to look forward to. While he is a bit young yet to be thinking about the birds and the bees, the search is on for a suitable girlfriend for Knut. Indeed, zoos from around the world have reportedly expressed interest in having little polar bear girls get to know Berlin's little polar bear boy.
Most recently, the zoo in the western German city of Gelsenkirchen on Wednesday made it known that it would be interested in having Knut meet two-year-old polar bear Lara. "In theory," a spokeswoman for the Gelsenkirchen zoo told the news agency ddp on Wednesday, "he could already come here when he turns one."
While Lara might be ready to reproduce as early as 2009, Knut most likely won't begin showing interest in mating until he's four. But introducing them as early as possible increases the likelihood of a Knut Jr. And because Lara's enclosure was designed with a romantic couple in mind -- indeed she had a boyfriend named Strupo but he died just before Christmas -- it would make sense for Knut to eventually move in with her rather than the other way around.
For now, though, Berlin zoo head Heiner Klös isn't promising anything. After all, Knut has been a financial windfall, driving zoo share prices up from a pre-Knut €2,000 per share to €4,900 at the beginning of this week. Stuffed animal turnover hasn't been bad either.
"We have taken note of the offer from Gelsenkirchen," is all Klös would say.