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Knut, Berlin Zoo's famous polar bear, dies at age 4

March 20, 2011 |  3:31 pm

Baby Knut

Knut, the polar bear who charmed millions as an adorable cub when a Berlin zookeeper hand-raised him after he was rejected by his mother, died Saturday. He was 4 years old.

Knut was reportedly alone in an outdoor enclosure -- he shared the space with three other bears, including his mother Tosca, all of whom were inside at the time -- when he "strolled around the enclosure, went into the water, had a short spasm and died," Heiner Kloes, a bear keeper at the Berlin Zoo, told the Associated Press.

Zoogoers watched in horror until zoo staff fenced off the enclosure from view. "Everybody was asking, 'What's going on, why is Knut not moving?' " visitor Camilla Verde recalled to the AP. "All the zookeepers who put up the fences were so very sad. One of them said, 'He was our baby.' "

Baby Knut His exact cause of death is unknown, and a necropsy -- an animal autopsy -- is expected to be performed Monday. His death is especially troubling because of his young age. At 4, he was still essentially a teenager in human terms and hadn't even reached his adult weight or sexual maturity yet. 

For a seemingly healthy polar bear to die at age 4 is "a little bit surprising," Peter Ewins, an arctic species specialist for the World Wildlife Fund, told ABC News. "In captivity, polar bears can live longer than in the wild; to 25 or 30. Even more than 30 years old because they're not exposed to the elements and hard realities of life in the wild."

Fans of the famous bear -- who celebrated his 4th birthday with a large party and a cake shaped like the number 4 in December -- flocked to the Berlin Zoo after the news of his death, many leaving cards, flowers and stuffed animals at a makeshift memorial, the AP reported. 

Thomas Doerflein, the keeper who raised Knut after his mother refused to care for him, died of a heart attack at age 44 in 2008.

A custody battle between the Berlin Zoo and another German zoo, the Neumünster Zoo, was resolved in 2009 with the former zoo agreeing to pay about $600,000 to the latter zoo in exchange for an agreement that Knut would remain in Berlin. Because Knut's father Lars was a resident of Neumünster, the zoo had argued that it was entitled to a portion of Berlin's Knut-related profits.

MORE ABOUT KNUT'S LIFE:
Knut the polar bear meets his future roommate, gets slapped (2009)
Knut, beloved polar bear, has a run-in with a fan (2008)

-- Lindsay Barnett

Top photo: Knut at his first public appearance at the Berlin Zoo on March 23, 2007. Credit: Markus Schreiber / Associated Press

Bottom photo: Keeper Thomas Doerflein and Knut in March 2007. Credit: Herbert Knosowsi / Associated Press

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