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German zoos battle over Knut the polar bear's profits

May 21, 2009 |  1:45 pm

KnutCelebrity polar bear Knut is no stranger to the spotlight, but the latest headlines about the onetime Vanity Fair cover cub aren't about his well-documented cuteness.  Knut now finds himself at the center of a heated custody debate between two zoos -- the one that's been his home since birth and the one that says it owns him, and deserves a share of the profits he's generated.

The debate goes something like this: Knut's father, Lars, was loaned to the Berlin Zoo by the Neumünster Zoo, in northern Germany, in 1999.  The deal, Neumünster says, was that it should own Lars' first offspring. 

Knut was one of two cubs born in 2006 to Lars and the Berlin Zoo's female polar bear, Tosca, but his sibling died shortly after birth when Tosca abandoned the cubs.  The rest is celebrity polar bear history, as Knut became a media darling when his keeper, Thomas Doerflein, decided to raise the cub himself.  (Doerflein died last year at age 44.)

Now, the Neumünster Zoo says it deserves a large share of the earnings the Berlin Zoo has reaped from Knut, who has spawned a host of memorabilia in his image and is a major public draw to the zoo.  (The bear's estimated "net worth"?  An estimated 10 million euros -- almost $14 million U.S.)

"We don't want to have the situation where we say, you either pay or we take Knut away," Neumünster's attorney, Arne Strassmay, told the BBC.

But the Berlin Zoo doesn't seem to be interested in sharing -- it has expressed a desire to keep Knut, but maintains that Neumünster isn't entitled to his profits.  "Give them a few penguins and let that be an end to it," was Berlin Zoo director Bernhard Blaskiewitz's response, according to the Guardian

Peter Drüwa, Neumünster's director, vowed to fight.  Berlin has expressed interest in buying Knut from Neumünster, thereby negating its claim to future profits.  But Neumünster says its offer is nowhere near Knut's worth.

The warring directors presented their cases in a Berlin courtroom Tuesday, but no conclusion was reached.  The judge recommended a settlement wherein the Berlin Zoo would hand over 700,000 euros (just shy of $1 million U.S.) to Neumünster for Knut.

Blaskiewitz balked, saying he couldn't pay more than 350,000 euros (a little under $500,000 U.S.).  The judge responded with an ultimatum, telling both to keep negotiating and come up with an agreement by June 13. 

No word on whether Knut will be divided in half should they not successfully reach a compromise.

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--Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Knut celebrates his first birthday in December 2007.  Credit: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images.

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