Flocking to Flocke

AP Photo/Tiergarten Nuernberg, Ralf Schedlbauer, HO
A photo released by the "Tiergarten Nuernberg" zoo in Nuremberg shows polar bear cub Flocke during her first encounter in an open air area, while her keeper looks on, Tuesday March 11, 2008.

Charismatic megafauna. That's the term used to describe large, popular, threatened animal species, such as the giant panda, blue whale, or polar bear, that are vital to the fundraising arms of conservation groups.

At the moment, it's hard to find an example more charismatic than Flocke, the polar bear cub born in captivity at the Nuremburg Zoo in December who makes her first public appearance today. Like her countrybear, Knut, Flocke was rejected by her mother at birth and is now being raised by zookeepers. And, like Knut, she has quickly attained rock-star status.

The Associated Press describes the 4-month-old cub's premiere:

In her afternoon debut before television cameras, the chubby bear had to be coaxed out into the polar bear enclosure, then slowly nosed around the rocks and grass with the curiosity of a toddler – keeping close to the zookeeper with her.

But she quickly gained confidence, eventually bounding through the grass and plunging into the water; paddling about for a few minutes before climbing out to nibble on the zookeeper's shoe to the delight of the television reporters providing commentary for the national live broadcast of the event.

Nuremburg Zoo is well aware of the animal magnetism that a cuddly polar bear cub can exert. Before Flocke's debut, the zoo created a special Flocke website, where they posted almost 180 photos and 108 videos, tracing Flocke's development from a helpless infant to a bounding toddler.

Flocke's popularity will likely mean a windfall for the Nuremburg Zoo. According to a March 21 article by The Associated Press, the zoo, which normally gets thousands of visitors in a week, is expecting 25,000 visitors a day after her debut. The zoo is building a platform in front of her enclosure that will hold up to 500 people at a time. In 2007 Knut earned a profit of around $7.4 million for the Berlin Zoo.

Flocke won't remain a cub forever. What happens when the 'mega' part kicks in? Knut's story is instructive. The 309-pound adolescent bear, who as a cub shared the May 2007 cover of Vanity Fair with Leonardo DiCaprio, now attracts only a handful of visitors, who gaze at him through a pane of thick glass. According to a March 25 story on Spiegel Online, Knut "has become so used to the attention of people that he also cries when no one is standing in front of his enclosure watching him."

Flocke's handlers are well aware of the fleeting nature of celebrity. The smiling cub now graces an ad for Nuremburg's transit authority. Below her are the words "Knut is yesterday."

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