After Death Warrant for Bear, Animal Rights Groups Demand Fair Trial

NYT > World > Europe
Elisabetta Povoledo
2020-06-27 04:15:01

ROME — Officials in northeastern Italy are testing the bloodstained clothes of two men after an attack landed them in the hospital this week. Investigators hope to extract enough DNA to identify the perpetrator.

Which happens to be a bear.

And while the region’s governor signed an ordinance to euthanize the bear, several animal rights groups have initiated legal actions for a stay of execution until the matter is investigated — a sentiment echoed by the country’s environment minister in a case that highlights the balance between ensuring human safety and protecting animal welfare.

“I trust in being able to optimally reconcile the safeguarding of public safety with the conservation and protection of wild species,” the minister, Sergio Costa, wrote in a letter to the governor that Mr. Costa made public on Thursday.

The attack took place on Monday as the two men — a 59-year-old father and his 28-year-old son — were walking on an Alpine path on Mount Peller, part of the Dolomites in Trentino. “We weren’t prepared — that area is normally peaceful,” Christian Misseroni, the son, said in a telephone interview on Friday.

He said he had been startled when the bear suddenly emerged from behind a plant, rushed toward him, growling, and then raised itself on its hind legs. The bear clawed at the younger man, who fell to the ground with the bear on top.

“I didn’t have time to react,” he said.

When the bear clamped its jaws on the younger man’s leg, his father, Fabio Misseroni, jumped onto the animal and was bitten in the leg, an arm and one hand. His fibula was fractured in three places, the son said.

“He saw his son being mauled — he didn’t think twice,” Christian said.

To distract the bear, Christian said, he then jumped up and began screaming and waving his hands. His father managed to get up as well, and the bear abruptly left. Both men were treated for teeth wounds, scratches and bruises, and the father will be on crutches for several weeks, Christian said.

“We’re physically well, but terrorized,” he said. “Going into the woods from now on just won’t be the same thing.”

On Thursday, when Trentino’s governor, Maurizio Fugatti, signed an ordinance to euthanize the bear, animal rights groups accused him of issuing a death sentence before a full investigation was carried out.

A similar attempt to block the euthanizing of a bear in the area failed in August 2017. And although environmentalists say that bears will often stand down if they do not feel threatened — as happened in a video that went viral last month of a 12-year-old boy’s encounter with a bear in the area — the animal in the 2017 case, known as KJ2, had twice attacked people.

The area is now home to about 80 to 90 bears, a figure that had dwindled to three or four around the turn of this century until Trentino brought in nine bears as part of a repopulation strategy. The animals, in addition to being a part of the local biodiversity, are also a tourism draw, since Trentino is one of the few places in the Italian Alps that are home to bears.

As part of efforts to track down the bear involved in this week’s mauling, the men’s clothes were turned over to the conservation genetics research group in the Biodiversity Department at the Edmund Mach Foundation, a research center about eight miles north of the city of Trento.

There, a team of researchers has been trying to extract DNA — mostly from saliva and fur — that the bear may have left on the men’s clothes. The researchers will then seek a match in a genetic database that the group has built up over the past five years from hundreds of samples of bear feces, fur and saliva.

“It’s very much like human forensics,” said Heidi Hauffe, the group’s leader.

Such information is typically used to monitor the bear population, including its numbers, the ratio of males to females, fertility rates and the animals’ wanderings. But the database can also be used if a bear is poached, killed or poisoned — or if one injures a human.

If the bear in question is identified, Ms. Hauffe will inform the province, whose wildlife experts will try to narrow down the suspects by sex and age. That could require capturing several animals, extracting DNA, and letting them loose again with a radio collar until a DNA match is determined.

A national plan of action mandates that “in the case that a human is attacked, the animal has to be euthanized, because there’s always the case that it could happen again,” said Claudio Groff, the head of the large carnivores division of Trentino’s Forestry and Wildlife Department. “That’s the choice they made when they drafted the plan: that human safety has the priority over the conservation of a bear.”

That is the case even when a female bear becomes aggressive in order to defend her cubs, as was the case with KJ2, he said.

Wildlife experts also say that local residents’ acceptance of the animals is essential to bear management policies — and that aggressive behavior by the bears puts that at risk.

But animal rights groups say that determining the circumstances of any aggression is crucial.

“In recent years, the Trentino administration has always taken a tough stance in the few cases that have come up, so that they can demonstrate that they can manage these incidents in the interest of citizens,” said Marco Galaverni, the scientific director of the conservation group WWF Italy.

He said bears were being penalized even for things like coming too close to city suburbs.

Massimo Comparotto, the president of the Italian branch of the International Organization for Animal Protection, said his group would challenge the euthanization order in court.

He also criticized Mr. Fugatti, the governor, over the capture in April of a bear known as M49 that spent nearly 300 day on the lam after escaping captivity. The bear — which gained considerable renown, even picking up the nickname “Papillon,” after the famous Devil’s Island escapee — is now being kept in a fenced-in area near Trento.

Another animal rights group on Friday put up posters calling for a boycott of Trentino.

And animal rights advocates said that further details were needed about the face-to-face encounter between the two men and the bear.

“We still don’t have enough elements to evaluate the bear’s behavior,” said Mr. Galaverni of the WWF. “Before we euthanize it, we have to better understand what happened.”

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