April 04, 2011 12:00 PM

Drawing millions of visitors, Knut (pronounced kuh-NOOT), the furry white superstar of the Berlin Zoo, was used to putting on a show. But the horrifying spectacle some 600 fans witnessed March 19 was no act. Playing on the rocks, Knut, 4, suddenly convulsed and plunged into the water. When the nearly 600-lb. bear stayed under, visitors realized he’d died before their eyes. (Polar bears can live more than 20 years in captivity; zoo experts initially identified certain mutations in the brain as a likely cause of death.) Now people around the world are mourning the loss of the cuddly cub who became an instant hit after being rejected by his mother-and lovingly bottle-fed back to health by keeper Thomas Dorflein. “Knut,” said Heiner Klos, bear curator at the zoo, where the polar bear helped generate millions in revenue, “brought us a lot of joy.”

He had his ups and downs, going through a moody adolescence during which one keeper complained that Knut was “addicted to fame.” But in recent years he found a new sense of peace, playing with-though not yet mating with-female companions. Now his enclosure stands empty, surrounded by flowers, poems and other tokens from those who loved him. Says one: “We will never forget you.”

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