Cross-eyed opossum in German zoo achieves global celebrity
By Birgit Zimmermann Jan 27, 2011, 3:06 GMT
Leipzig, Germany - A polar bear, an octopus and now an opossum. Germany continues producing animal celebrities, proving that when it comes to animal stars, it doesn't matter what type of animal is in the limelight. A little opossum called Heidi at the Leipzig Zoo is the latest animal sensation.
Heidi actually has everything necessary to be a star: Sympathetic coverage in the press, a song on YouTube and a Facebook page with more than 100,000 fans - well over German Chancellor Angela Merkel's nearly 65,000 friends.
Many people consider Heidi cute and the zoo likes the attention. The Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper called her the new Knut, a reference to a baby polar bear born at the Berlin zoo that captured German hearts in 2006. The Leipzig zoo was in fact taken by surprise by Heidi's popularity.
'We didn't create this hype,' said Joerg Junhold, director of the zoo. 'This is a story that has been taken up freely by the media and the internet.'
It started in December with a report about the animals that in the coming summer are to populate a building now under renovation at the zoo. The camera caught a glimpse of Hiedi scurrying by and unexpectedly, as it often is with stardom, she became a celebrity.
Even more intriguing is that zoo visitors cannot yet see the opossum. She is quarantined and the public won't be able to see her until summer.
Cute animals that take the hearts of the public by storm couldn't provide better publicity for zoos. Knut, for example, remains a favourite among the public. The bear was rejected by its mother and raised by humans. Knut and his keeper, who has since sadly died, both became prominent. The zoo trademarked the name and enjoyed a steady stream of visitors who wanted to see the little white bear.
In the wake of Knut came Flocke - in English, Flake - a female polar bear in the Nuremberg zoo that got a lot of coverage in the media. A contest was held to select a name for the animal and when the zoo invited reporters to a press conference to announce it, some television stations reported it live.
Animal oracles also made news in Germany last year. The best known among them was Paul the octopus. Paul became famous during the 2010 World Cup by predicting the outcome of the major football matches. Given the choice of food in two boxes, each marked with the flag of the countries opposing each other, Paul consistency picked the winner.
Just like Knut, Heidi has a sad story. The 2-year-old opossum, which was raised by hand in a wild animal park in the US, has a weight problem. Fat deposits put pressure on her eyes, causing them to cross. The veterinarians have put Heidi on a strict diet. Whether the treatment will be successful, meaning Heidi will have to forfeit her trademark crossed eyes, can't be predicted, said Junhold.
Heidi has received recognition from those in high office. She was featured on the electronic New Year's greeting issued by the government of Saxony. The picture shows the cross-eyed opossum sending the government's best wishes for 2011.
'We are pleased that we could contribute to increased recognition for the Leipzig zoo,' said Dirk Mueller-Thederan, a spokesman for the government of Saxony.
Junhold doesn't count opossums among his favourite animals, but he wanted to provide factual information about them. Thus, the zoo's website has listed facts about the cross-eyed opossum. The BBC and other worldwide media have done stories about the critter, but the zoo says it isn't earning any money on the Heidi hype.
The zoo has secured extensive rights only to avoid any possible abuse of the animal's story and name, said Junhold, adding that at present the zoo is not participating in any active marketing.
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