Knut's Death Brings Changes To The Lucrative Celebrity Animal Business

It may be time to update that old expression about beating a dead horse to include polar bears. Though Knut, the Berlin Zoo's polar bear, has been dead for three months, the race to profit from his memory is just getting started.

Before his death from encephalitis in March, Knut was arguably the animal world's biggest star. Like any other celebrity, he generated millions of dollars worth of business. Bloomberg Businessweek reports:

In its 167-year history, the Berlin Zoo-which is subsidized by the city and listed on the Berlin Stock Exchange-has been profitable for only three years, says Heiner Klös, its animal curator. Those were 2007 to 2009, the Years of Knut, when yearly attendance rocketed from 2.5 million to 3.5 million visitors, and the zoo made more than $30 million. In all, Gerald Uhlich, a former chief executive of the zoo and the architect of Brand Knut, estimates that the polar bear generated more than $140 million in global business.

Now dozens of vulture-like entrepreneurs are looking to keep Brand Knut going. There are plans for tell-all books, movies, a TV documentary, and everything from lunchboxes to coffee cups. Nevermind that Knut's no longer with us — just slap "in memoriam" on the merchandise and theoretically, the profits will keep rolling in.

The next few months should determine whether or not the bear is still profitable. And even if the public is still willing to shell out for Knut products, the Berlin Zoo may stand in the way. The zoo only licenses Knut's trademark to companies that preserve the bear's image "as an ambassador of climate change," according to Birgit Clark, a London trademark attorney. Uhlich, who is writing a book about Knut, complains that the zoo is missing an opportunity. "Brand Knut is established," he says. "There is still greater potential to use it for further products or services!" Calm down, mister — there's no need to be so sentimental about an animal!

Even if the Berlin Zoo squashes this macabre business, there are plenty of other animals ready to take Knut's place, including Heidi the opossum at the Leipzig Zoo, Leo the Pakistani snow leopard at the Bronx Zoo, and Miwa the monkey in Kyoto. It's likely that the lesson zoos take from Knut's death will be that it's best to have more than one celebrity animal at a time, just in case a baby elephant grows up to be not quite as cute, or there's an untimely mauling in the lion habitat. Of course, many people believe that making money off of zoo animals, and even keeping them in captivity in the first place, is exploitative. Yet, it seems unlikely that zoos will walk away from such a lucrative model, as ethics rarely win out when there are millions at stake.

Knut, The $140 Million Polar Bear [Bloomberg Businessweek]