Italian bear removed to sanctuary after bakery break-in

Marina Valentini is still bewildered as she surveys the scene of the crime, pointing to the floor of her bakery in Roccaraso, a small mountain town and ski resort in Italy’s Abruzzo region, where the crumbs of her freshly made biscuits were scattered.

“My husband had popped to the bakery,” she said. “I was at home, expecting him for dinner, when he called and said: ‘Marina, there’s a bear in the bakery’. My first response was: ‘Have you been drinking?’”

Valentini’s husband was very much sober. It was about 9pm in late November when a rare brown bear, fondly nicknamed Juan Carrito, sauntered up the town’s main street and crossed the terrace of Dolci Momenti (Sweet Moments) bakery, before turning into a side alley, smashing a small window with its claws and clambering over a ledge into the kitchen, where he scoffed a batch of biscuits.

“He must have smelled them wafting down the street,” Valentini said. “I had baked so many, some were on the table, the rest were in the oven … the doors were slightly open and he managed to pull out all the trays and eat the biscuits.”

It wasn’t the first time Carrito had brazenly ventured into Roccaraso. The two-year-old Marsican – a critically endangered subspecies of the brown bear living in the Apennine mountains that straddle the Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise regions – was practically a resident, as well as a star attraction for tourists, until his recent controversial capture. He would often stay overnight, sleeping among pine trees at the entrance to the town of about 1,500 inhabitants, before going in search of food, rummaging through bins and dining off leftover pizza and sandwiches.

On one occasion he was spotted drinking from a fountain and, as skiers flocked to the town this winter, Carrito became increasingly bold, once standing on his hind legs as the curious visitors took photos. Valentini said the bear would often hang around outside the bakery, but he took the biscuit with the break-in.

A few days after the break-in, forest rangers tranquillised the bear, flying it by helicopter to a remote area of wilderness in Majella national park. That, however, did not keep him away – Carrito, who is fitted with a radio collar, was soon back in Roccaraso, where he was filmed in the snow shrugging off a dog biting and barking around him.

It was his growing, albeit unusual, affinity towards dogs that led rangers to take more drastic action, and in early March, Carrito was lured by apples into a “tube trap” – a device commonly used to capture bears – tranquillised and taken to an animal reserve 20km away in Palena, where he is monitored while being prepared to re-enter the wild.

His capture has pitted residents in Roccaraso – with some saying he should be left to roam free – against authorities, who said it was necessary to remove him to prevent him causing harm, and for his own wellbeing.

“Bears are often seen in inhabited areas but Carrito was becoming problematic, he was completely linked to the urban life of the town,” said Luciano Di Martino, a biologist and director of Majella national park. “We’ve seen him eating from bins, also eating plastic. His time at Palena will be temporary as we try to adapt him to his natural environment.”

The Marsican bear population across the area has dwindled to an estimated 65 over the past two decades, thought to be the result of illegal hunting or the animals being hit by vehicles. Some bears have died after unwittingly eating poison laid down by truffle hunters intended for their rivals’ dogs.

The bears are not known to be aggressive, but authorities are erring on the side of caution. “They do have long claws and teeth that are bigger than those of a wolf,” said Antonio Antonucci, a wildlife biologist at Majella national park.

Bears that gravitate towards towns tend to be females with cubs, or young bears, although experts struggle to explain their motives, as there is an abundance of nutritious food in their natural environment. One explanation for Carrito’s sociability is his upbringing: he was one of four cubs born to a bear called Amarena. Such was the rarity of the event – on average, female Marsicans give birth to between one and three cubs – that the family attracted much attention. One of the first villages Amarena and her cubs appeared in was Carrito, hence the nickname.

“Amarena became a phenomenon and was confident,” said Antonucci. “She raised them near a town, and so Carrito practically grew up among people, but this wasn’t good for him.”

Human contact is ruled out at the enclosure in Palena, although Carrito is accompanied by three other bears, one a female rescued after 20 years in a cement cage as a visitor attraction run by the mafia. Food – a variety of fruit or deer meat – is given to him through a tube.

“He can’t go near the other bears but he can see and smell them – the idea is for Carrito to be familiarised with his own species rather than dogs, and for him to adapt to his natural food,” Antonucci said.

The bear’s stay at Palena is expected to last another couple of weeks before he is returned to the wild, although Antonucci is sceptical he will stay there.

Back in Roccaraso, Valentini is prepared: the window through which Carrito entered the bakery has now been fitted with bars. “It was a disaster at the time, we had to throw everything away and disinfect everything,” she said. “Now I have to deal with the crazy publicity: tourists come in and ask: ‘are these the biscuits the bear ate’?”