Beware of the boars
From Bavaria to South Africa, rampaging animals are bringing towns to a standstill. Why don't we just shoot them?
Last week a pack of wild boars rampaged through two small Bavarian towns, biting people, flinging a 76-year-old woman from her bike, and causing thousands of Euros in damage. The police responded by shooting three of the pack and running over two others, leaving the rest to escape across a river. Yet interestingly, many of the calls to the police hotline in the aftermath of the event posed an angry question: ‘Was it necessary to shoot them?’
Wild animals on the rampage are causing increasing problems, not because they are more frequent or ferocious than before, but because people often feel they don’t have a right to respond. A marauding bear or boar now causes days of agonising. Do we have a right to kill it? Won’t it just go away? It’s telling that these questions are now being asked in Bavaria, a region famous for its boar hunting.
Over the summer a bravo bear was causing problems in the Alps, killing livestock and wandering through villages in Germany, Italy and Austria. His lack of fear made him a severe danger, so the Bavarian Environment Ministry gave the green light for hunters to shoot him. This caused a storm of protest, so the authorities backed down and spent several weeks trying to take Bruno – as the bear became affectionately known – alive.
First Finnish trackers with dogs tried to find and anaesthetise the bear (at a cost of 25,000 Euros); then a hi-tech bear trap was flown in from America, specially designed so that the bars would not hurt the bear’s mouth if he were caught. When these attempts failed and the authorities bit the bullet and shot him, there was a national outcry. Some called for the resignation of the Bavarian environment minister; the marksman received death threats.
Some people set up online ‘Bruno memorials’ and a toy company produced a limited edition of 2,000 Brunos with black ribbons around the neck. The Bild newspaper ran with the headline ‘Farewell Bruno’ and the Spiegel discussed the bear’s ‘tragic’ end. Arguments ensued about what to do with the dead bear, with one suggestion that he be placed in a museum as a ‘memorial’ for how human beings treat the environment.
Many seemed to empathise more with the bear than with the farmers who lost livestock or the people who were injured. Indeed, local people are often blamed for the animals’ actions. When crocodiles devoured a number of young Floridian women back in May 2006, naturalist Maria Thomson argued: ‘The alligator isn’t the problem. It’s humans. We’re pushing them to the limit.’ (1) When an escaped badger severely injured five people in Worcestershire, England, a badger expert responded: ‘It shows the folly of trying to keep wild animals as pets.’ After wild boars went on the rampage in eastern France in 2003, the French government blamed hunters for leaving grain in hunting areas.
Some baboons hassled residents and destroyed gardens in a South African coastal town recently, and an official told locals that they should just learn to live with it. ‘Many residents are not prepared to make compromises to avoid conflict with baboons…. Baboons are there to stay and it is up to the residents to adjust’, he said. He suggested the ‘removal of fruit trees and vegetable gardens and putting security bars on windows’.
Because there is no culturally sanctioned way of responding to the problems caused by wild animals, locals sometimes take their embittered and ugly revenge. Somebody shot two of the baboons in the stomach, causing them a slow and painful death. In an area of France molested by brown bears, farmers put down honey laced with shards of glass.
In ancient myth, heroes sought out battles with beasts as a way to prove their honour and courage. These conflicts were presented as a question of the light of humanity versus the dark of nature. In the story of St George, England’s patron saint slayed the dragon that had been preying on innocent maidens of Arabia. We can see a similar kind of symbolism in the Spanish bullfight, where the finesse of the matador is pitched against the brute force of nature’s fiercest.
We no longer need these grand battles with wild beasts in order to prove ourselves: these contests made sense only for societies that were more in the grip of nature than is ours. It would have been odd indeed if that Bavarian town had yielded a gallant hero to slay the wild boars.
What we could be doing, though, is dealing with the attacks of wild animals sensibly and efficiently, to minimise the danger to communities, their crops and livestock. And that sometimes means that we have to shoot.
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