M13 – Bear with no name

I suspect there’s a reason that the brown bear known as M13, who has been a regular in the Swiss and German news over the last year or so, has remained as nameless as other 00 agents in a James Bond movie: M13’s ending isn’t going to be happy ever after. It’s best if the public doesn’t think of him as Teddy or Brownie or Fuzzy, but just a cold letter-digit-digit specimen. Some call him Yogi, but it hasn’t really stuck.

He’s one of two known free-ranging bears in the country. Both are outfitted with precise tracking devices, and authorities monitor the animals closely. The problem with M13 is, he does not display an acceptable amount of ‘inhibition’ when it comes to humans, traffic, trains, or very much else that could spell his demise. He’s what is officially known as ‘inquisitive’.

He’s knocked power poles into trees, starting fires. He’s been hit by a train but walked away undamaged. He’s climbed barriers and sauntered around in traffic. He killed a farmer’s goat. He robbed a beehive in a school yard aviary. He dug up the corpse of a missing man while foraging, which would seem to be a factor in his favor, but probably won’t help him in the long run. Even if he did go by the name of Inspector Bear for a short while.

When he approaches a populated area, authorities send out a ranger to fire non lethal ammo at him – not to harm him, but to provide negative reinforcement. Humans go boom and make ouch.

It doesn’t seem to be working. This week, M13 broke into a shed near a chalet. Like a drunk and distracted robber, he gorged himself on old potatoes and stale bread before trashing the place, wrecking a generator, a vacuum machine and a water pump before passing out for a day-and-a-half in the shed.

The difference between Switzerland and many other countries is that authorities want the tiny bear population, all that remains after the creatures were hunted to near-extinction, to be able to coexist with humans as a part of the national environmental heritage. So far, success has been slim – M13’s brother was killed in car accident, while another bear called JJ3 was put down for being overly aggressive.

A Spiegel Online interview with Joanna Schoenenberger of the World Wildlife Fund back in April of this year highlights this approach.

SPIEGEL ONLINE:With WWF you carried out a five-year project aimed at making life possible for bears along the Swiss-Austrian-Italian border triangle. There are now bear-resistant trash containers, beehive protection measures and educational hiking trails in the very area where M13 has now been spotted. How would you feel if the bear had to be killed?

Schoenenberger: We should have learned from JJ3. If it’s not possible for a bear to survive there now, it would be a total defeat for me and our culture.

M13 after a tagging session photo: Hunting and Fisheries Authority, Graubünden, Switzerland

Update: M13 was destroyed by forestry officials two days after emerging from hibernation. See here and here.

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