BERLIN (Reuters) - Celebrity polar bear Knut died by drowning, the Berlin Zoo said on Friday, as thousands of outraged fans planned a demonstration on Saturday against the zoo’s plan to stuff the animal. Knut, who won worldwide fame as a cute cub who defied long odds of surviving after his mother rejected him, died suddenly in front of hundreds of stunned visitors on March 19, aged four, after he fell unconscious into a pool of water at his enclosure.
The polar bear suffered from encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain, which caused him to collapse before he drowned, a necropsy indicated. Knut would have probably died from brain swelling if he had not drowned, officials said.
“In the end, Knut actually drowned,” Achim Gruber, managing director of the animal pathology institute at Berlin’s Free University, told a news conference.
He said “severe brain damage that he suffered from for quite some time” caused uncontrollable muscle spasms.
The zoo had originally said on March 22 after a preliminary investigation that Knut may have succumbed to a brain disorder. But German media later reported he may have died after an epileptic fit.
The zoo’s plan to stuff the 200 kg (440 lbs.) predator for display at Berlin’s Natural History Museum has been met with resistance by fans. A demonstration, “Stop the Stuffing of Knut,” is planned in front of the zoo on Saturday.
Hundreds of entries on the zoo’s online commemorative book urge the zoo to halt its plans to stuff Knut.
“Please don’t stuff Knut. Leave him be and build him a memorial,” one entry read.
“We feel we need to preserve something,” said Gabriele Thoene, marketing director at the zoo. “I think one can do a lot for science thanks to Knut. That’s why we agreed to the Natural History Museum’s request to donate Knut’s remains to science.”
Knut was rejected by his mother after he was born in December 2006 and hand-reared by his keeper Thomas Doerflein.
Thousands of visitors came to watch the keeper and cub play together, and Knut’s fame spread internationally. Doerflein also died young at age 44, in 2008, from a heart attack.
Additional reporting by Tobias Schwarz, editing by Paul Casciato