BERLIN – The Berlin Zoo's abandoned polar bear cub Knut looks cute, cuddly and has become a front-page media darling, but an animal-rights activist insisted Monday he would have been better off dead than raised by humans.
"Feeding by hand is not species-appropriate but a gross violation of animal-protection laws," animal-rights activist Frank Albrecht was quoted as saying by the mass-circulation Bild daily, which has featured regular photo spreads tracking fuzzy Knut's frolicking.
"The zoo must kill the bear."
When Knut — or "Cute Knut," as the 19-pound bear has become known — was born last December, his mother ignored him and his brother. Knut's brother later died and zoo officials intervened, choosing to raise the cub themselves.
Albrecht's assertion prompted quick condemnations from the zoo, politicians and other animal-rights groups.
"The killing of an animal has nothing to do with animal protection," said Wolfgang Apel, head of the German Federation for the Protection of Animals.
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Greens politician Undine Kurth called the suggestion "fully unacceptable." Petra Pau of the opposition Left Party invoked the widely-reported case of an Italian bear dubbed "Bruno" who wandered last year into southern Germany, only to be killed by hunters at the behest of local authorities worried about residents and livestock.
"Berlin is not Bavaria — therefore it will be better for Knut than Bruno," Pau said.
Albrecht told The Associated Press his beliefs were more nuanced than reported by Bild, though he applauded the debate the article had started.
He explained that though he thought it was wrong of the zoo to have saved the cub's life, now that the bear can live on his own, it would be equally wrong to kill him.
"If a polar bear mother rejected the baby, then I believe the zoo must follow the instincts of nature," Albrecht said. "In the wild, it would have been left to die."
The German animal rights organization "Four Paws" argued along similar lines, saying it would not be right to punish the cub for a bad decision made by the zoo.
Other activists have also argued that current treatment of the cub is inhumane and could lead to future difficulties interacting with fellow polar bears.
"They cannot domesticate a wild animal," Ruediger Schmiedel, head of the Foundation for Bears, told Der Spiegel weekly in its Monday edition.
Albrecht cited a similar case of a baby sloth bear that was abandoned by its mother last December in the Leipzig city zoo and killed by lethal injection, rather than being kept alive by humans.
But Knut belongs to the Berlin Zoo, and their veterinarian Andre Schuele, charged with caring for him, disagrees.
"These criticisms make me angry, but you can't take them so seriously," Andre Schuele said. "Polar bears live alone in the wild; I see no logical reason why this bear should be killed."
Schuele also argued that given the increased rarity of polar bears in the wild, it makes sense to keep them alive in captivity so that they can be bred.
"Polar bears are under threat of extinction, and if we feed the bear with a bottle, it has a good chance of growing up and perhaps becoming attractive as a stud for other zoos," Schuele said.
Knut, who recently posed for a photo shoot with star-photographer Annie Leibovitz for an environmental-protection campaign, is scheduled to make his public debut at the zoo later this week or early next week, according to Schuele.
Until then, Germans can follow the bear's progress in a vast photo spread and videos of Knut drinking from his bottle, bathing and playing with teddy bears and soccer balls, all available on the zoo's Web site.