Home Book Summary Table of Contents Max Hofstetter
The Berlin Book of Lists

    I have spent more than a decade perusing German newspapers from the intellectual Frankfurter AllgemeineZeitung, Germany's answer to The New York Times  or The Wall Street Journal, to Bild, star of the yellow press, a broadsheet-sized, tabloid-style rag that matches up best to The Sun  in the U.K.  Based on these years of focused if haphazard research, allow me to posit a well-founded sociological observation: No other people on the planet so regularly and passionately invest themselves in the cult of animal celebrity as the Germans.

    From bears to bunnies, opossums and even octopuses, the most popular German celebrities of the last decade have all had more than two legs.  Not a one has had the taxonomy Homo sapiens.  And when I say popular, I mean just that.  The shock and awe of a German celebrity animal campaign is faster than a speeding tweet, more powerful than an army of social networks and able to achieve market dominance in a single bound.  Want statistics rather than hyperbole? Heidi, the cross-eyed opossum who died in September 2010, racked up 328,551 "likes" on Facebook (and yes, my soul is shriveling just the tiniest bit from turning first to that source for a metric, but let's save my opinion on social networks for another book) versus 147,297 "likes" for Angela Merkel, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, leader of the strongest member of the euro zone.  That is, on the world's leading social network, a dead marsupial is more than twice  as popular as the national leader.  By means of international comparison, Barack Obama cleans up with 25,876,458 "likes" in comparison to Snooki, certainly the U.S.  equivalent of a dead marsupial, who comes in with 1,759,699 "likes."

    Sadly, the curse of celebrity seems to be distinctly pronounced for those few creatures destined to attain international superstardom in Germany: death.  With very, very few exceptions, Germany's animal celebrities do not enjoy their success for long, with the shortest reign amounting to three weeks and the longest to about four and a half years, making one wonder, what exactly is the conversion ratio when attempting to apply Warhol's fifteen minutes of fame to the lifetime of an octopus?

    And now, without further ado, on to the Tier-Promis  (animal celebrities)!

KNUT DER EISBÄR - (Polar Bear, * December 5, 2006; † March 19, 2011)
    The undisputed heavyweight (both in terms of size and popularity) in any discussion of German animal celebrities has always been and will always be Knut.The polar bear cub who stole the world's heart will almost certainly be the subject of a major German play, opera or musical within the next decade; his story is simply too dramaturgically perfect to ignore.

    Act I: Knut and his brother become the first polar bears born in Berlin in over twenty years but are rejected by their mother, Tosca.  Knut's brother dies within a few days but Knut is rescued by a controversial father figure, Thomas Dörflein, a heroic zookeeper (and the one who named him "Knut").  Dörflein stays by Knut's side as the baby bear is kept alive in an incubator for forty-four days while the world looks on and debate rages as to whether Dörflein should have saved Knut or let him die.  After Knut leaves the incubator, Dörflein literally moves into the zoo and sleeps on a mattress next to the bear's sleeping crate to provide around-the-clock care.  This initial controversy only feeds the media frenzy surrounding the undeniably cute polar bear cub, leading soon to that tipping point known only as Knutmania (it doesn't hurt at all that "Knut" rhymes with "cute"), resulting in the production and subsequent sale of ungodly amounts of merchandise emblazoned with Knut's likeness, including, but not limited to, stuffed animals, calendars, books, bags, DVDs, candies, an animated film (Knut und seine Freunde ) and the cover of the German Vanity Fair  in March 2007.

    Act II: Knutmania reigns supreme.  The Berlin Zoological Garden trademarks "Knut" and its stock doubles in value.  Knut begins to transition from a lovable polar bear cub to an honest-to-god polar bear, causing Der Spiegel  to remark that "Knut is no longer cute." Knut and Thomas Dörflein can no longer perform their daily shows as Knut has grown too big to remain safe for Dörflein.  Tragedy strikes as the brave and caring Thomas Dörflein unexpectedly suffers a heart attack and dies at the age of forty-four.  A city mourns its reluctant hero.

    Act III: Two-and-a-half years after the death of his foster father, Knut is the cock of the walk at the Berlin zoo and king of the German animal celebrities.  While no longer as cute as he was in his infancy, Knut's remains a media superstar and his every action is still transmitted to a captive public.  He survives a near scandal (perhaps even a near castration) when a related female polar bear (Gianna, with whom he shared a grandfather) is added to his enclosure and, after public speculation that the two would eventually mate, a public call is made to prevent this union for the sake of diversity of the polar bear genetic stock.  Gianna is eventually returned to Munich, Knut's fans stop an initiative that would have taken Knut to another zoo and he is reunited with his mother and two other adult female polar bears.  Despite reports in 2010 that Knut was being bullied by those polar bear "cougars," he shared an enclosure with them until his sudden end.  On March 19, 2011, Knut unexpectedly dropped dead in his enclosure before the eyes of several hundred visitors to the zoo, suffering a seizure caused by encephalitis then falling backward into a pool of water and drowning.

    Knut is gone, but he continues to make headlines in Germany; the recent one-year anniversary of his death caused controversy when the Berlin Zoological Garden refused to hold a commemorative event to mark the occasion.  "You mourn people, not animals!" zoo director Bernhard Blaszkiewitzdeclared.  Hmm, ever hear of Pet Sematary, Mr.  Blaszkiewitz?

    As of this writing, the future of Knut's remains remain in question.  They have been preserved, but the notion of displaying Knut's body in the Berlin Museum of Natural History has, for some reason, met with a fair amount of opposition.

PAUL DER KRAKE - (Octopus, * January 26, 2008; † October 26, 2010)
    Maybe the World Cup just does funny things to people.  Maybe the prospect of a truly international competition that pretty much the entire world takes part in (come on, North Korea has a team) casts a spell.  Or maybe Paul was really psychic.  All the same, history shall now forever record that a common octopus who came into existence at the Sea Life Centre in Weymouth, England, and soon transferred to the Sea Life Centre in Oberhausen, Germany, correctly predicted the outcome of all seven  games played by Germany in the 2010 World Cup, as well as Spain's victory over the Netherlands in the final.

    Presented with a choice of two clear boxes each containing a fresh mussel and each respectively featuring a different national flag (corresponding to the two opponents in the game in question), Paul's decision regarding which mussel to eat was deemed his pick for the winner.  International media attention descended on the oracle from Oberhausen.  Paul fever struck the entire world (it nicely complemented World Cup fever), helped along by major newspapers from The New York Times  to The Guardian  to Le Monde  to AFP  in Japan.  Stuffed animals were commissioned, websites were launched, a documentary was filmed and Paul even got an agent.  Hell, the sequel was already planned: the Sea Life Centre in Oberhausen quickly acquired another cephalopod, Paul II, and had intended to keep him in the same tank as Paul so that Paul could teach Paul II the fine art of football forecasting.  In short, in barely two and half years on the planet, Paul made it further in the quest for fame than roughly 98.2 percent of the people currently living in Los Angeles.  He also holds the high honor of being the first animal celebrity anywhere to attract the ire of Iran's current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whoheld up Paul as a symbol of all that is wrong with the Western world.

    Tragically for future sporting events, merchandising tie-ins and the Sea Life Centre coffers, the common octopus has an average lifespan of only two years and Paul went the way of all living things on October 26, 2010, not long after his retirement from prognosticating following the end of the 2010 World Cup.

JJ1 AKA BRUNO AKA BEPPO AKA PROBLEMBÄR - (Brown Bear, * 2004 - † June 26, 2006)
    Oh Problembär (problem bear), you were the German animal celebrity that started it all, even if you were by far the most misunderstood.  Believed to be the first wild brown bear on German soil for more than 170 years, JJ1 (the first cub born to Joze and Jurka at the AdamelloBrenta National Park in Italy within the framework of an attempt to protect the Brenta brown bear population in collaboration with Austria and Slovenia), JJ1 wandered out of the park in late April 2006 and proceeded to the Austrian-German border, making headlines and generally attracting a huge amount of media attention, a remarkable achievement given that his sojourn took place during the preparations for and actual playing of the 2006 World Cup in Germany. 

    Already known for killing sheep and plundering beehives in Italy, JJ1 continued to enjoy a moveable feast on his hike through Tyrol and Bavaria.  According to official information provided by the Bavarian State Ministry of the Environment, Health and Consumer Protection, JJ1 was responsible for the death of 31 sheep between May 20 and June 26, 2006, adding in some goats, chickens and the odd rabbit.  German and Austrian authorities grew further concerned when the bear beganappearing near sites of human habitation, giving rise to the fear that it might attack someone.  By the end of May, both the German and Austrian authorities had issued destruction orders, which would allow hunters to shoot and kill the bear.  In the wake of a public outcry, a few days later the German destruction order was rescinded and a custom-made bear trap from Montana was deployed, along with an expert team of moose-hunting dogs and hunters from Finland.

    Over the course of his coverage in the German press, JJ1 was dubbed both "Bruno" and "Beppo," but it was the hapless minister-president of Bavaria, Edmund Stoiber (think of him as a Lederhosen -wearing equivalent of Dick Cheney for his conservatism and Michael Steele for his regrettable turns of phrase; after all, Stoiber is the German politician infamous for referring to his wife affectionately as "Muschi," which also happens to be German slang for "pussy") who gave him the name that really stuck:Problembär.  During one of his infamous stuttering press conferences (if you speak German, there are few things more enjoyable than watching YouTube clips of Stoiber speaking in public), Stoiber attempted to differentiate between "normal bears," "damaging bears" and the complete neologism "problem bear," which he accused JJ1 of being,thus justifying the animal's destruction.

    The Finnish team, needless to say, failed to capture the bear.  In a series of events nearly deserving of the Keystone Kops, JJ1 even seemed to be taunting his pursuers.  He entered the small village of Kochel am See, killed a pet rabbit and pet guinea pig, literally sat down on the steps of the police station and found time to overturn a beehive.  The exasperated Bavarian government issued another destruction order.  This time, JJ1 was fatally shot in Bavaria, three days after the order was issued, on June 26, 2006.  Despite a flood of public anger and outrage, no one resigned from office and the world seemingly moved on.  But in a final macabre twist, a battle soon erupted over the rights to Bruno's body.  The Italian government declared him state property and demanded the return of the body.Bavaria refused, claiming the corpse,since the animal was killed in Bavaria.  Despite the intervention of the German federal government, the Bavarians remained hartnäckig  (persistent) and ultimately won out; today Bruno's stuffed body is on display in the act of stealing honey at the Museum of Man and Nature in Munich, immortalized as a problem bear for all eternity.

TIL DER KEINOHRHASE - (Rabbit, * February 22, 2012; † March 14, 2012)
    With a career (and lifetime) of only three weeks, Til the "no-ear rabbit" had barely began hopping down the path to becoming a household name before tragedy fell in the form of a cameraman's sneaker.  Named Til in deference to German actor and director TilSchweiger, himself the director, writer and star of a German romantic comedy called Keinohrhasen (Rabbits Without Ears), the rabbit was, in fact, born with no ears, probably as the result of a genetic defect.  Til's birth zoo, in Limbach-Oberfrohna in the former East German state of Saxony, had already contacted Mr.  Schweiger with the hope of obtaining a partnership (as well as Mr.  Schweiger's blessing in actually naming the rabbit Til).

    Unfortunately, Til's career came to an abrupt end nearly before it had begun.  With all of Saxony clamoring to see the rabbit, which had not yet appeared in public, a camera crew arrived at the zoo on Wednesday, March 14, 2012, to film the earless creature in advance of a press conference the following day.  Tragically, after being held up to the camera in the stall he shared with his mother and five siblings, Til was set down and quickly managed to hop behind the cameraman who, in moving backward, failed to notice Til.  He stepped on him, instantly killing the rabbit and the zoo's chances for international fame along with him.  Beware the Ides of March indeed!

HEIDI DAS SCHIELENDES OPOSSUM - (Opossum, * 2008; † September 28, 2011)
    Rescued from relative obscurity in the Leipzig Zoo thanks to preview pictures of an upcoming exhibit in Bild  that rapidly went viral, the fame of Heidi the cross-eyed opossum quickly spread far beyond the boundaries of the Federal Republic of Germany.  Heidi-mania quickly ensued, with the creation and marketing of high-end Heidi stuffed animals (featuring the prestigious label "Handmade in Germany"); the aforementioned Facebook page; an offer to appear at the Academy Awards; and a video appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!  where Heidi offered Oscar predictions in three different categories, ultimately correctly prognosticating two out of three winners(her adoration of James Franco and 127 Hours  has never been satisfactorily explained).

    Heidi's fame came wholly from her appearance: the "cross-eyed" opossum literally had eyes that appeared crossed and bulged from their sockets.  Officials at the Leipzig Zoo speculated that this was due to a poor diet early in life (Heidi and her sister, Naira, were originally found orphaned and were raised in a wild animal sanctuary in North Carolina in the United States) with a resulting build-up of fatty deposits behind the eyes, causing them to protrude slightly.

    The average lifespan of the Virginia opossum is only two years in the wild and a maximum of four in captivity.  Sadly, Heidi was euthanized by the Leipzig Zoo on September 28, 2011, after struggling for weeks against a variety of health problems due to her advanced age of three and a half years.
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