A zoo in southern Germany, which wanted to avoid a sequel to "Knut mania", has been criticised for refusing to intervene to save two polar bear cubs which now appear to have been eaten by their mother.
Nuremberg zoo, in Bavaria, ignored calls to rear the vulnerable cubs by hand as Berlin zoo famously did a year ago with the cub Knut, the zoo chiefs deciding that "nature should take its course" with the babies born to Vilma five weeks ago.
"We wanted to avoid a repeat of the stupid Knut mania and not rear the animal by hand," said Helmut Mägdefrau, deputy director of Nuremberg zoo.
Using a fishing net, Berlin zoo staff had whisked the young polar bear Knut to safety from the enclosure it shared with its mother, Tosca, in December 2006. The bear later became a global celebrity.
Despite knowing that Vilma was not feeding her young, Nuremberg zoo did not intervene. On Monday the keepers realised the cubs were gone. "We could not find the remains of the little ones, so we cannot determine the cause of death," Mägdefrau said. "We're very sad." He said Vilma could have seen her babies die or killed them because they were sick.
Politicians and animal rights activists accused the zoo of neglect. "You cannot just dump them in an artificial environment then treat them as if they're living in the wild," said Berthold Merkel, president of Bavaria's Animal Protection Association.
A year ago an activist sparked an outcry by suggesting the rejected Knut should have been left to die. But others said it was nonsense for a zoo to treat captive creatures as if they were living free.
The attention is now on the polar bear Vera, who has also had a cub. Reacting to the public outcry, Nuremberg's mayor, Horst Förther, said: "I don't know whether we could face losing another polar bear." Yesterday the zoo relented, and said it would be rearing Vera's cub by hand.