Zookeeper who lovingly reared Knut found dead

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The Independent Online

The German zoo keeper who raised Knut, the world's most famous polar bear from cub to caged maturity by playing him Elvis hits and massaging his body with baby oil has been found dead in his Berlin apartment under mysterious circumstances.

Police said, 44-year-old Thomas Dörflein had been suffering from a serious illness. They refused to comment on suggestions that he had committed suicide. The keeper who was the father of three children, was found in his partner's flat. A post mortem examination was due on Tuesday.

Knut rapidly won the sympathy of millions in December 2006 after photographs and television footage of the tiny, snowy white and initially blind bear's birth at Berlin Zoo were flashed around the world together with the story of his plight.

The new-born bear had been rejected by his mother, a disturbed East German circus bear called Tosca and under natural conditions – would have died shortly after birth.

Mr Dorflein came to the rescue. For nearly 18 months the bearded and telegenic keeper fulfilled the role of Knut's surrogate mother, hand feeding his charge day and night with baby bottles full of milk, rubbing his body with baby oil, and playing him sentimental Elvis hits songs on his guitar to get him to sleep.

By late last year however Mr Dorflein, who had virtually given up life with his own family to look after Knut, said that he could wish the bear no better birthday present than permanent separation. The zoo banned physical contact between the two in July 2007. Mr Dorflein admitted that Knut risked becoming dependent for life on his keeper.

"I hope that Knut is accepted by another zoo which has a bigger compound for him and a mate. Someday soon Knut and I will have to split up," he said. Berlin Zoo has been attempting to find a new home for Knut since then.

The extraordinary man—bear relationship turned into a natural feast for the media. Documentaries were pumped out by German television and acres of print were devoted to the bear in the country's popular press. When Knut first appeared in public at Berlin Zoo in March 2006 more than 500 journalists were present to record the event. The rest is history.

Conservative estimates put the profits Knut has generated for Berlin Zoo at around Euros 10 million. Hundreds of cuddly white Knut toy bears are sold as souvenirs to Berlin visitors daily, 25,000 silver commemorative Knut coins have been issued by the Federal Mint as collectors items and Berlin newspapers offer their readers Knut porcelain figurines at Euros 148 apiece. A Hollywood film starring Knut started showing in German cinemas this week.

However Knut's celebrity status prompted animal psychologists to warn earlier this year that the bear had developed psychopathic tendencies. Several suggested that Knutr had become addicted to humans and their company and would never manage to live successfully with other polar bears or find a mate.

Berlin Zoo has been attempting to find Knut another home since the beginning of this year, albeit without success. At the same time zoos across Germany have been involved in a protracted debate about the pros and cons of keeper-raising polar bears which have been rejected by their mothers. Some zoo directors argued that the practice was unnatural after another baby polar bear- also rejected by its mother - was born under similar circumstances at Nuremberg zoo this year.

Mr Dorflein had always denied suggestions that he had become emotionally involved with Knut through raising him : "Knut is not like my child and he does not arouse the kind of emotions I feel towards my children," he said in an interview last year. "For me Knut is always an animal," he insisted.

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