BERLIN // The abrupt death of Knut, Berlin Zoo's world-famous polar bear, on Saturday in front of 700 shocked visitors has plunged the German capital into mourning and saddened people all over the world.
The bear became a Berlin icon and a global celebrity in 2007 after his mother rejected him at birth, prompting the zoo to rear him by hand. He had a fan club that stretched from Berlin to Buenos Aires.
Eyewitnesses said Knut appeared to be enjoying the afternoon sunshine on a flat rock in his enclosure when he suddenly started spinning around repeatedly and then twitched as if he was suffering an epileptic fit.
He toppled over into the moat behind him and flailed around desperately with his powerful paws. He quickly stopped struggling and his lifeless body floated on the water.
Scores of visitors who had watched the tragic spectacle shouted for help and burst into tears. Zookeepers rushed to the scene. One elderly woman collapsed and had to be taken to hospital in an ambulance.
"This bear didn't just enchant the people of Berlin but conquered hearts all over the world," said Frank Bruckmann, the supervisory board chairman of Berlin Zoo.
The zoo's bear expert, Heiner Klos, said: "There was nothing to suggest he was ill, he was behaving normally at midday. For Knut fans, to come here and see your darling die before your eyes, it's almost like the death of a partner."
The moat had to be drained and the 270-kilogram bear was hoisted out of his enclosure by crane. A post-mortem will be conducted today. The zoo said Knut might have died of an epileptic fit, organ failure or cardiac arrest. There has also been speculation that he might have been poisoned.
The news spread rapidly around the world via Twitter and internet news sites. "This is terrible," said the mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, in a statement. "He had a special place in all our hearts."
His death at the age of just four years and three months marks the tragic end of a strange fairy tale that delighted millions of people.
There is no shortage of polar bears born in captivity, and most births elicit nothing like the attention he received. But Knut was special. Soon after his birth on December 5, 2006, a wildlife expert caused a public outcry by saying he should be put down to spare him the behavioural disorders that would result from hand-rearing. The zoo gave swift assurances that Knut would not be killed, but the story turned Knut into a celebrity.
Tabloid newspapers devoted front pages to the bear's plight in early 2007, and the media coverage intensified when the pint-size cub was first presented to the public on March 23, 2007.
International TV networks covered the event live, and the playful, snow-white bear with button eyes quickly melted hearts around the world. The zoo, recognising his commercial potential, licensed an array of Knut-based merchandise, from cuddly toys to marshmallows.
The interest was heightened by Knut's friendship with Thomas Dörflein, a bearded, bearlike zookeeper who became his replacement mother by bottle-feeding him, burping him and rubbing baby oil into his fur. Mr Dörflein even slept next to Knut's cot.
The German government adopted Knut to raise public awareness of the threat to polar bears from global warming.
At one point, 15,000 people a day lined up to catch a glimpse of Knut playing hide-and-seek under rugs, chasing balls and biting Dörflein's backside, an increasingly painful experience as Knut's jaws rapidly grew stronger.
After 2007, visitor numbers dwindled as Knut's cuteness waned. Berliners remain devoted to their famous pet, though, and campaigned successfully in 2009 to stop him being moved to another zoo.
But fate seemed to be catching up with Knut. Mr Dörflein died of a heart attack in September 2008, depriving the bear of his only friend in a strange world of flashing cameras and people shouting "Knuuuut!"
Animal campaigners claimed that hand-rearing had indeed affected his behaviour. Knut would often stand on his hind legs and hold his paws up, apparently performing to the crowds.
An attempt to get him to mate with a female polar bear failed and when he was moved into an enclosure last year with three older female bears, including his mother, Tosca, animal rights organisations and fans complained he was being bullied and suffering stress as a result.
Already, calls are growing for Knut to be stuffed and exhibited in Berlin. Yesterday hundreds of people came pay their respects and put down bouquets and croissants - his favourite food - in front of his enclosure. Children left drawings of him and messages such as: "We loved you, Knut." Some people had lit candles.
Newspapers devoted front pages to his passing. "Berlin's Heart is Broken," declared BZ, a Berlin daily.
Some drew comfort from the thought that Knut and Dörflein may now be reunited. "Knut is now with his friend and keeper," said Edith Pauer, 60, a Berliner. "The two will now be able to play together again up there."