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Callista Gingrich
Newt Gingrich posted this photo of his May 2007 visit with Knut the polar bear on Facebook.
By
TODAY contributor
updated 3/22/2011 12:24:41 PM ET 2011-03-22T16:24:41

While his Democratic Party detractors have long accused Newt Gingrich of not having a heart, the Republican heavyweight showed he has a soft spot for critters in mourning the death of his phonetic namesake, Knut.

Knut, a 4-year-old polar bear and star attraction at the Berlin Zoo in Germany, died suddenly and unexpectedly at the zoo on Saturday — and Gingrich quickly used social media to express his sorrow.

“Sad news! Just learned that Knut the polar bear died suddenly at 4 — (wife) Callista and I visited him in Berlin when he was five months old. He was cute,” Gingrich wrote on Twitter.

Video: Tributes pour in for polar bear Knut (on this page)

And on his Facebook page, Gingrich wrote, “Callista and I were sorry to learn of the unexpected passing of Knut this weekend.”

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Indeed, Mr. and Mrs. Gingrich bonded with Knut during their German holiday in 2007, and Newt invoked Knut’s name numerous times later that year in promoting his go-green book, “A Contract with the Earth.”

Knut made headlines when, after he was rejected by his mother at birth, he was raised by zookeepers in Berlin instead. Along the way, he became an environmental cause celebre and a major tourist attraction; attendance at the Berlin Zoo roughly doubled after Knut made his official debut.

Photoblog: More images of Germany's most famous bear

Knut got enough media attention to turn a politician green with envy — appearing with Leonardo DiCaprio on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, becoming the subject of a film and spawning his own merchandising industry.

Related: Knut, Berlin’s beloved polar bear, dies in his compound

Death by fame?
But the death of the seemingly healthy bear Saturday was bewildering. Some 600 zoogoers were watching Knut’s doings when he suddenly started shaking and walking in circles before collapsing into his zoo compound pool.

Zoo officials said preliminary findings in an autopsy performed Monday showed previously undiagnosed brain damage. But animal rights activists pointed to Knut’s celebrity lifestyle as his undoing.

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Activists contended Knut’s fame made him psychologically unbalanced and overly dependent on attention, and he was no longer able to socialize with other bears, reports London’s Daily Mail. Crowds watching Knut at the Berlin Zoo often reported him weaving to and fro and standing on his hind legs, trying to mimic the motions of visitors taking pictures of him. 

Slideshow: Knut, Berlin's beloved polar bear (on this page)

On Tuesday, Gingrich, the former U.S. Speaker of the House and expected 2012 presidential candidate, showed his affection for Knut on his Facebook page, displaying a photo of a beaming Newt kneeling next to the bear, then still a cub, at the zoo during his 2007 visit.

“I love that scruffy, white-haired beast — and the polar bear, too!” one waggish Facebook poster commented under the photo.

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Tributes pour in for polar bear Knut

Photos: Knut the polar bear

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  1. Visitors watch polar bear cub Knut in the Berlin zoo, March 24, 2007. Knut, the polar bear who became a global celebrity as a cute cub, died in at the Berlin zoo March 19, 2011 at the age of four. Knut, the first polar bear born at the zoo for more than 30 years, was rejected by his mother and fed instead by his keeper Thomas Doerflein. Thousands of visitors came to watch keeper and cub playing together, and Knut's fame soon spread around the world. The cause of death was unknown and he will undergo an autopsy. (Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Knut has his first public appearance with his keeper Thomas Doerflein in the Berlin zoo, March 23, 2007. (Herbert Knosowski / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Knut playing with a blanket at his enclosure of the Berlin zoo, March 28, 2007. (Marcus Brandt / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Knut plays with a foot of his minder Thomas Doerflein at the zoo in Berlin, June 11, 2007. (Marcus Brandt / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Knut eats his one-year birthday "cake" at the Berlin zoo Dec. 5, 2007, in Berlin, Germany. Zoo officials celebrated Knut's one year birthday by inviting the public and the media to watch Knut eat his cake, whose ingredients included rice, potatoes, carrots and a whole fish. (Anita Bugge / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Knut is refelcted in a window as he takes a bath Jan. 11, 2008 in his enclosure at the zoo in Berlin. (Axel Schmidt / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Knut takes a bath in his outdoor enclosure at the zoo in Berlin, Germany, Aug. 6, 2009. (Rainer Jensen / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Knut swims in common duckweed at the zoo of Berlin, Sept. 14, 2009. (Rainer Jensen / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Knut, right, and Giovanna, a female polar bear on loan from the Munich zoo, play tug of war as they swim in their enclosure at Berlin's Zoologischer Garten zoo Jan. 8. (John Macdougall / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Polar bears Knut, left, and Giovanna cuddle at their enclosure at the Berlin zoo on March 4, 2010 in Berlin, Germany. (Sean Gallup / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Knut interacts with with six-year-old visitor Nane and her cushy polar bear "Knut" at the Tiergarten zoo in Berlin on Oct. 19. German newspapers reported today that the world famous polar bear is being bullied by his fellow polar bears in their enclosure in the Berlin zoological garden. (Odd Andersen / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Knut rolls in the snow in his enclosure at Berlin's Zoologischer Garten zoo, Jan. 8, 2010. (John Macdougall / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Knut stands in his enclosure, March 26, 2010. (Action Press / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Knut yawns in his enclosure at the zoo in Berlin, Dec. 10, 2010. (Johannes Eisele / AFP - Getty Images file) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Children stand in front of polar bear Knut's enclosure at the Berlin zoo on March 21, 2011. Germany was in stunned mourning after the sudden and premature death of Knut, Berlin's world-famous polar bear, who died on March 19. Zoo visitors signed a condolence book, left notes, flowers and candles in tribute to the beloved bear. (Johannes Eisele / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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