More Cute Polar Bear Cubs? Nooooo!

Traumatized by the death of Knut and his handler, I now hope the Siku sensation dies down quickly.

It seems like only yesterday when I was obsessed with a tiny polar bear cub named Knut (pronounced kuh-noot). But it was 2006 and I was working at Philadelphia Weekly as a managing editor with important things to do. Weekly papers have a hectic pace and small staffs; there’s not really much time for obsessing about polar bears. But obsess I did, and I justified it by posting Knut updates on my blog—a, um, mental health blog. I rationalized it by telling myself that many of my readers were probably depressed, and seeing cute photos and videos of a baby polar bear could only be therapeutic.

In truth, it was like an addiction for me. Refresh, refresh, refresh. Endless Google searches and, when that wasn’t enough, Yahoo!, Ask Jeeves (“Where is more Knut?”) and AltaVista, which is the GeoCities of search engines. Just to give you an idea of what I was up against:

As you can see, part of the appeal was the close relationship Knut had with Thomas Dörflein, his handler, who was with him 24/7. The growing bond was remarkable to watch, and remained intact even when Knut was a big dangerous bear. Check out this video entitled “Knut and Papi,” whose title alone is enough to make me cry.

I followed Knut’s every development via the website of the Berlin zoo where he was raised, from when he opened his eyes to the first time he went swimming like a real polar bear. I started to be known by blog readers for my passion for Knut, which is embarrassing now, but at the time seemed perfectly normal. Who wouldn’t be in love with Knut and Thomas? (Well, there were animal rights people and biologists and other smart people who complained about aspects of Knut’s husbandry, but I couldn’t be concerned with all that in the face of a little pink tongue licking at milk.)

And then, in 2008, tragedy struck. Thomas Dörflein, 44, died suddenly of a heart attack. As if that weren’t enough, Knut was developing behavioral problems and was an increasing cause of controversy and lawsuits. The cultural frenzy around him died down, as he was deemed less cute. And then, this year, Knut also died suddenly and young—which, combined with the loss of Dörflein, put me into bed for a full day.

Every time someone has mentioned Knut to me since, I’ve had to silence them. “We mustn’t speak of that,” I say. I don’t want to get triggered.

Then, the other day, a longtime reader emailed me the newest development in polar bear cuteness: a Danish cub named Siku who is also being hand-reared. She sent me a link to photos and a YouTube video that showed the bear sucking a human finger. Should I press play? I should. First he suckled, then he wiggled onto his back, his big baby tummy exposed to the sky, his pink tongue sticking out, his fat little paws in the air. I paused the video and took a breath. I knew watching him struggle to right himself would be hard for me, and the handler in the background suggested someone might give him a bottle or scratch his back or maybe even cuddle him. Was I strong enough to survive it? I chose to watch. Of course.

Fortunately, there’s only one Siku video so far and there’s no particular handler who’s been identified as “Papi.” Also, Siku’s mother is still alive, so the hope is to reunite mother and cub soon, which may forestall further videos. That’s for the best, I know. Less fortunately, I’ve just become aware of another cute cub situation (twins!), this one in China. Watch here if you dare. I don’t think I will.