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Cat Defender

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Monday, October 06, 2008

In Memoriam: Thomas Dorflein, 1963-2008

"Der Berliner Zoo hat einen Sympathietrager verloren. Thomas Dorflein wurde als Pflegevater von Knut weit uber Berlin hinaus bekannt als eine sympathische, engagierte Personlichkeit. Ich bin besturzt uber seinen plotzlichen Tod..."
-- Berlin Burgermeister Klaus Wowereit

The headline in the September 22nd edition of the Aachener-Zeitung shouted out the heartbreaking news: "Knut-Ziehvater Thomas Dorflein gestorben." With that solemn announcement, the curtain finally came down on the enchanting and awe-inspiring Knut and Thomas Show.

This was not animation conjured up by the geniuses at either Walt Disney or DreamWorks; it likewise was beyond the imagination of either a Kenneth Grahame or a Richard Adams. It instead was the true-life story of the improbable bond that developed between an orphaned polar bear cub and the forty-four-year-old Berlin zookeeper.

Although Dorflein reportedly had been in ill health for several months, he collapsed suddenly on September 22nd and died without uttering another word while at the apartment that he shared with his girlfriend, Daniela K., in the Wilmersdorf section of Berlin. An autopsy later revealed that he had died of a cardiac infarction.

The news of his untimely passing shocked animal lovers all around the world but it especially hit home with his colleagues at Berlin Tierpark and denizens of the Hauptstadt. The main entrance to the zoo was quickly transformed into a makeshift memorial where grieving fans dropped off flowers, photographs, letters, candles and, as it was to be expected, stuffed polar bears. (See photo above.)

A second memorial was set up outside the enclosure that Knut still calls home. (See photo below.)

On September 25th the Tierpark established a web site where the public could post condolences and within twenty-four hours more than seven-thousand individuals had availed themselves of this opportunity. As a testimony to Dorflein's international appeal, the tributes came in from Vietnam, Turkey, Holland, Sweden, France, and the United States as well as from all over das Vaterland.

The Tierpark also has established a Thomas Dorflein Prize to be awarded annually to outstanding zookeepers. It will have a cash value of $1460 and come with a trophy.

"Der Berliner Zoo hat einen Sympathietrager verloren," Berlin Burgermeister Klaus Wowereit told Der Spiegel on September 23rd. (See "Trauer um Knuts Ziehvater.") "Thomas Dorflein wurde als Pflegevater von Knut weit uber Berlin hinaus bekannt als eine sympathische, engagierte Personlichkeit. Ich bin besturzt uber seinen plotzlichen Tod..."

Die Fordergemeinschaft also mourned his passing. "Mit Thomas Dorflein verliert der Zoo Berlin einen hoch engagierten Tierpfleger, der mit grosser Leidenschaft seinen Beruf -- seiner Berufing -- nachging," a spokesperson for the group told the Aachener-Zeitung in the article cited supra.

"Ich bin shockiert vom Ableben eines meiner besten Pfleger, der alles fur seine Tiere gegeben hat," Heiner Klos, a biologist at the Tierpark, told the Aachener-Zeitung. For a dedicated animal lover and zookeeper like Dorflein there could not be a more fitting epithet.

The event that catapulted the obscure zookeeper onto the world stage was the birth of Knut on December 5, 2006. Knut and his twin brother were both rejected by their mother, Tosca, who had been abused by an East German circus.

The brother died four days later but with Dorflein assuming the role of his surrogate mother Knut lived. For the following eighteen-months or so he hand-fed the cub bottles of milk, rubbed baby oil on his fur, nursed him through sickness, and sang him to sleep with renditions of some of Elvis's old tunes.

In March of 2007, more than five-hundred reporters and thousands of fans were on hand for the long awaited premier of the Knut and Thomas Show. They were not disappointed in what they saw. Over the next several months millions of visitors were treated every day to two hours worth of Dorflein playing with Knut and teaching him to swim. (See photo below.)

Just as no good deed seemingly ever is allowed to go unpunished, both Dorflein and the Tierpark came under heavy criticism for intervening and saving Knut's life. Their detractors argued that the cub would become psychologically dependent upon humans and thus be unable to relate to, not to mention mate with, other polar bears.

While the jury is still out on that vitally important issue, Dorflein instead followed the dictates of his large heart. "Da war die Hilflosigkeit der beiden," he said of Knut and his brother in the Aachener-Zeitung article cited supra. "Das ist doch ganz Klar, ein menschlicher Instinkt, dass man da unbedingt helfen will und muss."

When the helpless Knut finally opened his eyes and looked at Dorflein for the first time that sealed the deal. "Wenn so ein Tiere einen anguckt, das ist schon etwas anderes als vorher," he told the Aachener-Zeitung.

Like it or not, the rearing of Knut transformed the humble and shy zookeeper into an overnight celebrity. The fan mail and the marriage proposals began to pour in and had not abated at the time of his passing. In fact, he could scarcely leave his Berlin flat without being pursued by groupies.

For saving Knut's life and his service to Berlin Tierpark, Dorflein was awarded Berlin's highest honor, the Medal of Merit. He also was feted by Bundesprasident Horst Kohler at Bellevue Palace in Berlin.

To say that he was taken aback by all the fanfare that he received would be a gross understatement. Nevertheless, he carried it off with amazing aplomb and without once allowing all the notoriety to go to his head.

Perhaps even more amazing, there is not any evidence that he ever attempted to cash in on his fame. From the outset he always insisted that he only cared about Knut's welfare and the joy that he derived from playing with him.

The same can scarcely be said for the Tierpark which has reaped a financial bonanza thanks to Dorflein's extraordinary efforts. In 2007, for instance, more than three-million visitors passed through the zoo's portals and it is estimated that the facility has raked in more than ten-million euros in profit because of Dorflein and Knut.

Just as is the case with professional athletes and musicians, the Tierpark also has been able to successfully market a potpourri of Knut memorabilia. Zum Beispiel, it sells hundreds of Knut teddy bears every day.

Berlin newspapers also have cashed in by peddling Knut porcelain figurines for one-hundred-forty-eight euros apiece. Not about to be left out of the gold rush, the Federal Mint has issued twenty-five-hundred silver commemorative coins bearing the cub's likeness. (See The Independent, September 24, 2008, "Love Story: Knut Mourns His Keeper.")

It is sad to say but apparently Dorflein and the Tierpark were estranged at the time of his death. The rift began in July of 2007 when officials ordered him to stop having any physical contact with Knut.

Dorflein defied the ban and continued to see Knut up until February of this year. By early summer, however, he had completely disappeared from the scene.

Since press reports do not delve into the matter in any detail, it is impossible to say with any certainty what exactly transpired. He either could have been fired or suspended. It also is possible that his health prevented him from attending to Knut and the other animals under his supervision.

Although Dorflein denied that he had become emotionally attached to Knut, it is nevertheless a remote possibility that he died of a broken heart. Unless the Tierpark comes clean on this issue the world will never know for sure what actually happened during the last few months of his life.

There cannot be any doubt, however, that the stress brought on by fighting with his superiors over access to Knut would have only exacerbated any congenital defects that he might have had. There also could have been financial pressures, especially if the Tierpark had stopped paying him.

Dorflein, who as born in the Wedding district of Berlin in 1963 and grew up in Spandau, had worked for the Tierpark for twenty-five years. In 1987, he was placed in charge of the zoo's bears, wolves, and coatimundis. Most recently he had been assigned to the apes, cliff-dwellers, and predators.

He leaves behind his girlfriend as well as three children and his mother. Since nothing has been announced publicly, it probably is safe to assume that funeral services and burial will be private.

As for Knut, he remains at his old enclosure although the Tierpark has been attempting for months to find him a larger home. More importantly, there is not any way of knowing if he is even aware that his surrogate mother has died.

Since Dorflein had been away from the zoo for months, most likely Knut had already adjusted to his absence. Besides, the zoo has other keepers who attend to his daily needs and mobs of tourists who come to visit him every day.

Moreover, the Knut craze does not evince any sign of slackening anytime soon. For example, he is featured in a documentary film entitled Knut, das Eisbaren, und Thomas Dorflein, der Barenvater, which opened in German cinemas the week that Dorflein died. That is in addition to having made the cover of the Deutsch edition of Vanity Fair last year.

He therefore remains not only a very popular animal but an extremely valuable one as well and those two considerations should ensure that he receives the humane treatment that he so richly deserves and that Dorflein would have wanted.

Meanwhile, the debate over what should be done with orphaned polar bear cubs was rekindled earlier this year with the birth of Schneeflocke at the Nurnburg Zoo. How well she and Knut adjust to their altered circumstances no doubt will go a long way towards determining the fate of future cubs that are rejected by their mothers.

It is even more debatable whether polar bears and other large predators belong in zoos and captive breeding programs in the first place. (See Cat Defender posts of June 23, 2008 and July 24, 2008 entitled, respectively, "Amur Leopards Continue to Slide Toward Extinction as Conservationists Toy with a Controversial Captive Breeding and Rewilding Initiative" and "Red Panda That Was Rejected by Her Mother but Later Adopted by a Cat Dies Unexpectedly at Amsterdam Zoo.")

Unfortunately, with global warming, pollution, oil exploration, and shipping ravaging their polar habitat, the bears may soon not have anywhere else to live but in zoos. It is perfectly clear, however, that no animal belongs in a circus.

Although he truly loved Knut, Dorflein also had a special relationship with a forty-year-old Asiatic black bear known as Mauschen who, oddly enough, has shared her cage for the past eight years with a domestic cat named Muschi. (See Cat Defender post of June 30, 2008 entitled "Berlin Zoo Reunites Old Friends Muschi and Mauschen after a Brief Enforced Separation.")

"Mauschen wird im Zoo Berlin ewig leben, sie kann gar nicht sterben," he is quoted in the Aachener-Zeitung as having predicted earlier this summer. It is just too bad that the same cannot be said for him.

Although his death is a terrible loss, his spirit will live on in Knut, Mauschen, and all the other animals that he cared for and befriended. Knut's mere existence is proof that he was a zookeeper who really cared about the animals under his protection.

Anyone wishing to sign the condolences book can do so at www.zoo-berlin.de.

Photos: Associated Press (memorial outside entrance to zoo) and Deutsche Presse-Agentur (flowers outside Knut's enclsoure and Dorflein and Knut).