With a sniff and a stumble, Berlin Zoo's irresistibly cuddly baby polar bear made his public debut Friday, delighting hundreds of excited children who packed the rails around the pen.
"We want Knut! We want Knut!" chanted a group of third graders who pressed against the railing surrounding what is normally the brown bears' area, cleared for the appearance of the zoo's star, dubbed "cute Knut" by the German media.
Ambling cautiously over the uneven, grassy ground, Knut delighted the crowds by clambering over a log and sniffing curiously at the legs of his handler, Thomas Doerflein.
"I'm so happy to be able to see him today," said Leila Klamann, 9, whose school class was visiting the zoo. "And he's so cute!"
Knut's first public appearance was scheduled for Saturday, but lucky children visiting the zoo Friday were allowed to infiltrate the hundreds of reporters, photographers and cameramen gathered to cover the cub's media debut.
Some children climbed nearby playground towers on the zoo grounds for a bird's eye view of the pen.
The cub, born at the zoo on December 5, has already captured the hearts of Berliners through his own video podcast and TV series. Star photographer Annie Leibovitz also came to take his portrait for an environmental campaign.
Poking his nose and then his paws into a stream, the 15-week-old cub appeared interested in exploring the strange environment Friday, but returned frequently to Doerflein, who has raised him by hand since his mother rejected him and his brother shortly after their birth. The other cub later died.
"He looks even better and sweeter than he does on TV," said Julian Fuerster, a 10-year-old who stood with his class at the edge of the pen.
"And more cuddly," he added shyly, glancing sideways at the other boys around him.
While the small white bear ambled across the expanse of the otherwise empty pen, chewing on bits of bark and following Doerflein, a black bear in an area behind the mass of photographers sat on his haunches with a puzzled expression and yawned.
The fate of the 9-kilogram (nearly 19-pound) bear stirred a media flap when an animal activist insisted that the cub would have been better off dead than raised by humans. The zoo flatly rejected the idea, reports AP.
"If you see the little bear, you'll see it's stupid to say something like that," zoo curator Ragnar Kuehne said.
The general public will be able to see Knut officially beginning Saturday, when he is scheduled to make similar, brief appearances with his handler.