Knut the polar bear: Reluctant Berlin zoo looks for new home

Berlin zoo reluctantly seeks new home for its growing star attraction as it cannot afford cost of larger enclosure

Once the darling of Berlin, Knut the celebrity polar bear has become a victim of the credit crunch: the zoo that reaped in the euros from its most famous resident can no longer afford to keep him.

Knut turns two this week and Berlin zoo is unable to raise enough money to give the growing bear the new, bigger compound he needs to move, play and mate. A new home is being sought.

A larger compound - and the acquisition of a mate - would have cost the zoo an estimated €9m (£7.68m).

"It's simply too much money," said one zoo manager. "We cannot afford a third group of polar bears in such economically strained times."

The zoo's senior bearkeeper, Heiner Kloes, said: "It's time for him to go - the sooner he gets a new home the better. Anything else would be financially irresponsible."

There is likely to be demand across Europe's zoos for Knut, who graced the cover of Vanity Fair and appeared in his own feature film. Knut's popularity raised €5m for Berlin zoo.

He might have lost that cuddly, playful image – he is now 210kg and 2.5m tall on his back paws – but Knut's fame would continue to reap rewards for whichever zoo took him on.

More than 21,000 Berliners have signed a petition to keep him in the city. "Berlin is set to lose one of its best ambassadors," said Christian Taenzler, a tourism authority spokesman. "To the regret of international visitors it is about to lose one of its true icons."

Zookeepers believe it is in Knut's interests to find a new home in the company of other polar bears. They are worried for his psychological health because 18 months of hand-rearing after rejection by his mother has left him addicted to human laughter and applause. One keeper says Knut has become so used to attention that he cries when no one is near his enclosure.

Knut's strongest tie to Berlin zoo – Thomas Dorflein, the keeper who reared him - was found dead in his Berlin flat in September.

Knut's legal owner is Neumunster zoo in northern Germany, the home of his father, Lars, and there has been a legal fight for a slice of Knut's fortune between the two zoos.

Alternative homes for Knut are Hanover zoo; Orsa, the Swedish bear park; and an animal refuge in Norway. Gelsenkirchen zoo, another possibility, has a distinct advantage: a three-year-old polar bear cub called Lara who is a potential mate.

There are concerns that even if a mate is provided, Knut might not be mature enough to respond to her advances.


Lee Glendinning and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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