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Visitor Becomes Unbearable

This first appeared in The Globe and Mail in June, 2006

The night of May 18 was not an especially productive one for Bruno the brown bear. He ambled through a suburb in Tyrolean Unterletzen, climbed over a garden fence, plodded along the banks of the Lech river, toppled a compost bin, fumbled with the gate of a chicken run and swiped over four bee hives. What Bruno didn’t realise, was that at some point in the course of his nocturnal ramble, he crossed over the Austrian border to enter German Bavaria and thus world history.


Bruno, the first brown bear on German soil in 170 years, was cause for euphoric headlines and statements of warm welcome by senior Bavarian politicians.


But three days later, after the bear had made mincemeat of nine sheep, six chickens and four pigeons, the mood in Bavaria changed. So did Bruno’s name. Genetic analysis of a hair left behind at a sheep-snacking point revealed Bruno’s true identity to be JJ1, son of Jurka and Joze, two Slovenian-born brown bears who were relocated to northern Italy as part of a World Wildlife Fund bear re-settlement program and whose progeny have proven problematic in the past.


As May 22 was being celebrated elsewhere as World Biodiversity Day, Bavaria’s Environment Minister Werner Schnappauf declared JJ1 free game for hunters. There was an immediate outcry by  animal rights activists, zoo keepers and the WWF, which has been publishing an online protocol of JJ1’s every move since he left his home district of Trentino in early May. The decision was reversed and now, a WWF-lead campaign to capture the bear alive is entering full force.


Central to the operation are five Karelian Bear Dogs, which were flown into Bavaria from Finland this week. The breed, traditionally used for tracking moose in Scandinavia, knows to wag its tail rather than bark when it smells its prey. Escorting the dogs are a WWF “bear lawyer,” trained to mediate between bear and man, a biologist, and an anaesthetics specialist from the University of Vienna, who will have to get within 70 metres of the bear for his narcotic-filled arrow to meet its mark. Bärenmarke, a Nestle-owned brand of condensed milk whose icon is a cute little mama bear, has sponsored the transport of a bear cage from the Rockies, which has been custom fit to JJ1’s specifications.


“We’ve never tried anything like this before,” says Jörg Ehlers, who is managing the campaign for the WWF. “I think our chances of catching him alive are about 50 percent.” The bear lawyer carries a rifle.


“There’s no question that JJ1 is a problem bear,” Ehlers admits in a telephone interview, “but the real problem lies with the region, which has forgotten how to deal with bears. Germany has no management strategy, no programs to compensate for damage, no experts. This has to change because JJ1 is not going to be the last of his kind.”


Since Germany’s last free-roaming bear met a bullet in Bavarian Ruhpolding in 1835, German bears have only existed in the form of stuffed animals, rubbery candies and municipal emblems. But given the community of 20 re-settled bears in neighbouring Austria and the animal’s natural instinct to claim new territory, it was only a matter of time before Germany was to be re-acquainted with the real thing.


“Conditions are actually better now than they were a century ago,” says Ehlers, referring to a shift away from Alpine agriculture and towards valley settlement that has left more space available to bears. “And bears are tourist attractions. It was high-time they came back.”


From a marketing standpoint, however, JJ1 has not been the perfect pioneer. The two year old, 100 kg animal is demonstrating an unusual and potentially dangerous indifference to humans. Pictures of disgruntled looking farmers next to piles of eviscerated sheep have been making the front pages of national papers. And it wasn’t long before the German media began referring to unwelcome brown Austrian exports of the past. 


Determined to keep public opinion on JJ1’s side, Ehlers claims that the bear’s lack of restraint in barnyards is normal. “Those animals are playthings for him,” he says, compelling  Germans to think about how they behave when presented with a  very nicely laid-out buffet.


The campaign to capture JJ1 has run up against hurdles of every kind. The Nordic dogs, although specially shorn for the German operation, are exhausting quickly in the heat wave that struck Germany this week. The bear has been travelling an estimated 20 km per night through the region’s least accessible valleys and showing an uncanny preference for land belonging to the 2 percent of the local population opposed to the WWF campaign. (On Wednesday, the state of Tyrol overruled the private landowners’ right to refuse the WWF team entry.) And, in his ongoing disregard for borders, JJ1 has been vacillating between Austrian and German jurisdictions.


The bear’s international spirit may prove his saving grace.


“At this point, no politician dares say they want to see JJ1 dead,” says Ehlers. While the bear was wreaking havoc in Bavaria, Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schlüssel spoke loud and proud of his country’s bear settlement program and Austria’s acceptance of the furry newcomers. Germany, currently hosting the World Cup under the motto “A time to make friends,” hardly dare adopt a contrary position.


In the event of successful capture, it remains to be seen what will become of JJ1. The government in Rome has said that Italy would be delighted to have the bear back, but officials in Trentino are refusing to follow up with an invitation. WWF experts agree that JJ1 is probably beyond reform and will always be a menace in the wild. His most likely future home, should it be an earthly one, seems to be the Poing game park near Munich, which has an enclosure ready and waiting. Bavaria’s Environment Minister said recently that this would be a perfect solution.

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