Fed-Up Germany Kills Its Only Wild Bear

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 27, 2006

BERLIN, June 26 -- Until last month, Germans hadn't seen a wild bear in their country for more than 170 years. On Monday, they showed they still knew how to hunt.

Bruno, a bear who had romped across southern Germany since migrating over the Alps from Italy six weeks ago, was shot by a Bavarian hunter at sunrise. Government officials had authorized the use of deadly force after they failed to take him alive with an assortment of tricks, including a pack of Finnish tracking dogs, tranquilizer darts and nonlethal traps imported from the United States.

The bear's demise prompted an outcry from nature lovers and animal rights groups, including callers who left death threats at the offices of the Bavarian Hunting Association. Many accused Bavarian officials of overreacting and questioned why plans were suddenly dropped to capture Bruno and confine him to an animal park.

"That is the stupidest of all solutions," Hubert Weinzierl, president of the German Environmental Protection Association, told reporters. "In other countries, humans and bears coexist in relative harmony. Only in Germany would he be liquidated."

Bavarian authorities said they regretted the outcome but blamed Bruno for forcing their hand. They said the bear had failed to show enough fear or respect for humans and was repeatedly wandering into Alpine villages in search of food.

"We tried everything to capture him alive," Otmar Bernhard, Bavaria's environmental undersecretary, said in a statement. "The shooting was inevitable, even though it was difficult for everyone."

Authorities kept the identity of the hunter a secret to protect him from retribution. They also said little about the circumstances surrounding Bruno's death, except to say that an innkeeper had alerted them to the bear's presence on a mountainside in the district of Miesbach.

The last straw for officials came over the weekend. On Saturday, the bear stood up on his hind legs and snarled at three overly curious hikers who saw him in the woods and tried to follow him, but got too close. Later that day, officials gave the go-ahead to a team of hunters.

Although Bruno didn't hurt any people, he was accused of eating sheep and plundering beekeepers' hives. He also gave people a fright in the village of Kochel am See recently when he ambled around a cafe, sat on the stoop of the police station and snacked on a little girl's pet guinea pig.

Bruno, who was 2 years old and weighed an estimated 220 pounds, was born in northern Italy into a family that was resettled there as part of a wildlife restoration program. Italy and Austria have encouraged the growth of their small bear populations and have programs to compensate farmers and others for bear-related losses.

German officials said they weren't opposed to bears in principle, only misbehaving ones. "If a normal bear finds its way into Bavaria, it is cordially welcome," Bernhard said.

Now that he is dead, Bruno is welcome, too. Plans are to stuff him and put him on display in a museum in Munich -- next to the remains of the last bear killed in Bavaria, in 1835.

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