Bear facts of a paradox

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The story of the fate of Bruno the bear is an affecting tale of our times. Bruno owed both his life and death to modernity: he was alive because of its concern - and was killed because of its concern. Who, he might have asked as he breathed his last, can understand these humans?

Bruno was Italian. Indeed, the name he was given was probably simply his description in Italian - orso bruno, or brown bear. He had been used to the quiet life in a nature park called Adamello-Brenta, high in the mountains of the Alto Adige, in the extreme north-east of Italy. His parents were first-generation immigrants, having been introduced back into the area where they had been rendered almost extinct by the depredations of hunters. They had, in the course of being transplanted, also got used to humans - and so (one theory goes) Bruno had not had the customary parental warnings about the advisability of staying away from them. His mother might have told him, they are usually only after one thing: your skin. But she probably didn’t.

He thus wandered carefree away from the family - first into Austria, just over the border - and then over another border, into Bavaria in southern Germany. Here was an area more heavily populated than the natural park, and Bruno began to be spotted rooting around the dustbins of towns and villages and, less innocently, killing a sheep when he felt like a square meal. The Bavarian state government got worried and hired a team of Finns to track Bruno and knock him out with a stun gun. Though they were supposed to know something about stunning bears, the Finns could never get near enough to fire the knock-out shot. After two weeks, when their dogs collapsed with exhaustion, they gave up.

The Bavarian government then declared open season on Bruno, and the next day a group of Bavarian hunters, licensed to kill, shot him in the early hours of the morning.

The animal lobby has since had a field day. Hubert Weinzierl, president of Deutschen Naturschutzrings, the German environmental protection association, called the shooting “the dumbest of all solutions”. BundJugend, a youth environmental group, said it was a “tragedy for Bavarian nature protection”. Jorn Ehlers of the WWF, the global wildlife conservation organisation, introduced a Dickensian death-of-little-Bruno note, saying, “Bruno found his way into our hearts.”

Bruno, however, had also found his way into villages, sheep pens and the hutch of a little girl’s guinea pig. At one point, drunk with success, he had a rest opposite a local police station (where Bavaria’s finest were at the time is not reported). And so the authorities, while sorry and all that, weren’t penitent. “It’s not that we don’t welcome bears in Bavaria. It’s just that this one wasn’t behaving properly,” Otmar Bernhard, an official with Bavaria’s environment ministry, said. “The bear kept wandering into populated areas. We didn’t have much choice.”

I am with Bernhard on this one, but I feel Bruno’s pain. He was a spoilt child of a newly powerful, globally organised lobby: that which sees it as the duty of civilised states to provide habitats for all animals, to preserve all species possible and, where they are threatened with extinction, to take active steps to preserve them. His parents, as the first beneficiaries of this, would have been properly grateful; Bruno took good fortune for granted, as the young so often do. His life had been made possible by the intervention of humans: why should he not take their guinea pigs and their sheep, without any expectation of retribution?

On the other hand, there are the Bruno-slaying Bavarian authorities. You don’t need to be Steven Spielberg to visualise what was going through their minds. Say the little girl had materialised during the guinea-pig caper and tried to argue the toss. Bruno might have resorted to a dismissive swipe, which might have been the end of the little girl’s throat. The WWF would not, it’s safe to say, put out a press release congratulating the Bavarian authorities for allowing Bruno to continue in freedom. The authorities would have been naked before the wrath of right-thinking people and tabloid newspapers everywhere.

For it is the case that another great movement of the modern age is the passion to avoid risk. It’s now assumed, by much of the public in the rich and contented states, that almost all risks should be avoided; that if they are not, the authorities are to blame; and that since they are, inquiries and commissions must be set up to name and shame. Risk is now the great inhibitor - so much so that people of business and enterprise are worried about its effects. Britain’s Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce has set up a Risk Commission, to see how much of our fear is really necessary - and to help us live with what risks we cannot sensibly avoid.

Risks, as we see them, are produced by modernity. As sociologists have pointed out, they used to be a fear of what nature would do to us. Now, they are more often seen as arising from what we do to nature - warming the globe, genetically engineering food, or polluting large swathes of the ecology.

Bruno harked back a century or so, to a natural risk. The product of a feeling of guilt for past slaughters of non-human beasts, he fell prey to a feeling of guilt for future accidents that should have been prevented. He was in every sense a tragic bear, and somebody should write a play or - in the tradition of his native land - an opera about him. It would be very sad, but like the best of classical tragedy, it would have an inexorable logic. It could be Luciano Pavarotti’s last big role: he already looks the part.

john.lloyd@ft.com

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