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Knut, polar bear cub, becomes commercial object at German zoo

Every day, some 15,000 people line up at the Berlin Zoo to see Knut the polar bear cub. But even those far from the zoo cannot escape his little button-eyed face.

Click here to see photos of Knut

The fluffy baby bear has become Germany's latest merchandising sensation, inspiring Knut T-shirts, Knut mugs, Knut postcards, Knut DVDs, Knut keychains, Knut candy and stuffed Knuts costing up to EUR29.95 (US$40).

Born at the zoo on Dec. 5, Knut - who was rejected by his mother and hand-raised by zookeepers - rose to fame last month thanks to television and newspaper pictures. Since then, Knutmania has just kept on gathering steam.

Together with Leonardo DiCaprio, he appears on the cover of Vanity Fair's current May issue, with pictures taken by star photographer Annie Leibovitz. He has the cover of the German edition all to himself.

Zoo officials say attendance has roughly doubled on average since Knut came along.

"Obviously, his innocent, babylike looks are an important reason," said Peter Walschburger, a psychologist at the Free University in Berlin, adding that Knut's white fur and soft, round features made people want to protect him.

The merchandizing frenzy now includes a special collection by German toy maker Steiff GmbH. Since January, the company has been selling 800 Knut bears every day, said sales director Gerald Uhlich.

The stuffed animals come in three sizes and cost from EUR19.95 (US$26.60) to EUR29.95 (US$40). Steiff has a license deal with the zoo and will invest part of its profit in projects there.

Haribo, the German candy company that makes gummi bears, has created a white, marshmallow-like Knut candy that will hit grocery stores across Germany and Austria next week. The candymaker also will contribute part of its proceeds to the zoo.

"Our Knut candies have raspberry flavor and are sold in boxes of 150 pieces or over the counter for five cents each," Marco Alster, a Haribo spokesman, said Thursday.

Knut even has his own blog in German, English and Spanish - written by a journalist at the regional public broadcaster, Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg.

The Knut marketing phenomenon has also had a dramatic impact on the Berlin Zoo's stock. The shares, which had hovered around the EUR2,000 (US$2,680) over recent years, shot up as high as EUR4,820 (US$6,400) this week.

By Thursday, however, the 4,000 shares, publicly traded on the local Berlin-Bremen Stock Exchange, had settled back to EUR3,700 (US$4,960).

The boom may run its course in the next few months: Unlike his stuffed replicas, cute Knut will soon grow up - into a huge and much less cuddly adult.