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Italy debates fate of JJ4, brown bear that killed runner Andrea Papi

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Andrea Papi was taking a jog in the woods around the northern Italian town of Caldes when he ran into the unimaginable: a female adult brown bear, known to authorities for its history of violence against humans. It mauled the 26-year-old runner to death.

Just over two decades ago, only five brown bears were known to roam the Trentino region, and conservationists feared the population would die off. A repopulation effort was so successful that their numbers grew by 20-fold, but the bears are now coming into increased contact with humans — who are not used to living alongside the predators — and the killing of Papi has reignited a debate over their numbers.

The most pressing question after the April 5 mauling was what to do with the bear, pitting the local governor against animal rights activists and prompting fearful residents to question how much they are willing to sacrifice to accommodate their new neighbors.

On Friday, a court in Rome offered Papi’s killer a temporary reprieve, halting an order to destroy the 17-year-old mother of three cubs. The decision was hailed by animal rights activists, who hope to transfer the bear to a sanctuary in Romania, but decried by the governor — who wants it shot dead, along with three “problematic” others. The court found that euthanizing the bear, known as JJ4, would be “disproportionate,” Reuters reported, citing a 1979 treaty that prohibits the unnecessary killing of wildlife.

“It is a sentence that has no respect for our territory,” Maurizio Fugatti, the governor of Trentino, told reporters Saturday in response, promising to continue with his legal battle to kill the bear — the only way, he said, of guaranteeing the human population’s safety. The order left him wondering whether the court valued the life of an animal over that of a human, he said.

Forestry officials captured the bear at night in April, according to local authorities, who released images of JJ4 being transported in a secure vehicle to an enclosure.

Bears chased their dogs. These 60-somethings jumped in and got injured.

Animal rights groups, whose lawyers petitioned the court to spare the bear, hailed Friday’s decision as a win for conservation efforts. In a statement, the Italian animal rights group LAV said it hoped to proceed immediately with the transfer of the bear to Romania — where the group said it had secured a spot in a shelter for JJ4 to live out the rest of its life in peace.

However, Friday’s court ruling did little to answer the broader question now gripping Trentino: what to do about the growing number of brown bears roaming the region — which in recent years have committed a spate of nonfatal attacks on humans.

In March, the month before Papi’s killing, a different bear attacked a man in the nearby Malé commune, causing injuries to his arm and head, according to authorities. In 2020, officials say, JJ4 was also behind a series of nonfatal attacks, including against two men climbing Monte Peller in the Dolomites.

Trentino’s brown bear population has grown dramatically since 1999, when a European Union-funded project began releasing a handful of Slovenian brown bears into the Italian Alps in a bid to bolster the dwindling population. Over the next quarter-century, their numbers grew to more than 100, according to local government estimates.

What should I do if I see a bear? First, don’t run away.

Fugatti argues that the province’s brown bear population is dangerously high and that the numbers should be halved to between 40 and 60 — a sustainable size, he says, that is in line with the original goals of the conservationists who began the repopulation efforts. In a statement Friday, WWF Italia criticized politicians for their “demagogic” campaign against the bears,calling on officials instead to seek advice from scientists on how bears and humans can coexist peacefully in the Alps.

Attacks by bears against humans are rare. Last month, a 64-year-old woman was bitten by a black bear in Porter, Maine, after she punched it in the nose when her dog caught its attention. In a separate incident that same weekend, a Connecticut man was injured after he tried to stop a bear from attacking his dog.

According to the National Park Service, if you startle a bear without prompting it to act aggressively, you should wave your arms and slowly back away while avoiding eye contact.

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