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Berlin zookeeper dies, raised polar bear cub Knut

BERLIN (Reuters) - A German zookeeper who lovingly nourished celebrity polar bear cub Knut at the Berlin zoo after his mother Tosca rejected him at birth has died aged 44, Berlin police said on Monday.

Polar bear cub Knut plays with zoo employee Thomas Doerflein at his enclosure in Berlin zoo July 5, 2007. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Thomas Doerflein, a good-natured man with a thick black beard, became an improbable sex symbol for his devoted care of Knut and won fame himself for his playful games with Knut before large crowds of adoring fans.

Doerflein selflessly stayed with Knut round the clock for 150 straight days, hand-feeding the cub with milk and porridge through the nights. Knut, weighing 800 grams, was the first polar bear born at the zoo in 33 years.

Knut would have died shortly after his birth in December 2006 without Doerflein’s care. Some animal rights campaigners criticized the zoo’s decision to hand raise the polar bear.

Doerflein’s twice daily “Knut shows” drew more than 1 million viewers and were staged for several months until Knut grew too large.

A police spokesman said Doerflein, who started working at the zoo in 1980, was found dead in his apartment in a west Berlin district near the zoo. No other details were available.

Doerflein had tried to avoid the media spotlight and turned down interview requests from Germany’s top talk show hosts, Guenter Jauch of RTL and ZDF’s Johannes B. Kerner.

His modesty only made the public more interested in the man who gave Knut his name. Before long, Doerflein was receiving love letters and propositions from female fans far and wide.

“Here on my desk is a pile of love letters from around the world -- they’re even sending me poems and songs they’ve written about me,” Doerflein once told Der Tagesspiegel newspaper.

“It happens at least 20 times a day, I’ll be walking somewhere and people will shout ‘Knuuut, Knuuut!’ Before, there were a few women in their 60s interested in me. Now when I leave work I get besieged by young women. I’m afraid to go out there.”

Doerflein told Reuters in an interview that he was still able to roll around on the ground with Knut, who was then six months old and had grown to 28 kg (62 pounds) -- but he had to wear long-sleeved shirts for protection.

“He’s just playing and it doesn’t hurt, it just pinches a bit,” Doerflein said, adding he let Knut bite his fingers even though his teeth were sharp. “It only hurts when he gets angry.”

Additional reporting by Madeline Chambers