Italian prosecutors have launched an investigation into the alleged mistreatment of the country’s most famous bear, nicknamed Papillon, who is currently detained in a wildlife centre in north-eastern Italy after being recaptured for the third time.
The 149kg young brown bear is accused of having slaughtered dozens of cows and sheep in the mountains of the Trentino region, and until his capture last month was Europe’s most wanted wild animal.
Authorities consider the bear – officially known as M49 – an “escape genius”, as he has fled twice from his enclosure. On one occasion he managed to climb over three electric fences and a 4 metre barrier before disappearing into the woods. The feat earned him the Papillon name, after the eponymous character of Henri Charrière’s book about escaping from a French penal colony.
His latest capture incurred the wrath of environmental groups, which have vowed to take legal action against the provincial governor of Trento, Maurizio Fugatti, of the far-right League party.
The bear has been locked in a 2 metre by 6 metre cage since 7 September, surrounded by three 7,000-volt electric fences, a 4 metre barrier, CCTV and a cadre of rangers.
The Italian environment minister, Sergio Costa, has declared that the animal must be returned to the wild. But he conceded the national government had little say in the case since Trento’s autonomous status gives the provincial authorities the power to decide Papillon’s future.
A report from the environmental protection squad of the national police, released last month after a visit to the Casteller centre, said the bear was under stress and living in unsuitable conditions. “M49 has ceased eating properly and charges the gate of his cage,” it said, adding that in his first week after recapture vets administered tranquillisers to calm him.
Papillon is in custody with two other bears, codenamed DJ4 and M57, who allegedly attacked a man last August.
“All three bears suffer from severe psycho-physical stress,” the police report said. “Therefore, the conditions of the bears’ detention do not guarantee adequate wellbeing.”
The chief prosecutor of Trento, Sandro Raimondi, confirmed to the Guardian that an investigation had been launched into the alleged mistreatment of the bears.
Alpine brown bears were reintroduced to the Trentino region in 2000 after their population dwindled to just four. Herders protested when the bears began preying on livestock, and as their number increased, armed “anti-bear” squads were formed to capture and, if necessary, shoot any bears considered “potentially dangerous”.
Some bears were killed intentionally, while others died from tranquilliser overdoses during capture operations. Those that were caught ended up behind fenced enclosures, while about 10 simply disappeared.
The controversy over Papillon has rekindled debate in Italy about who owns the wild spaces and the rights of humans and nature. “These woods belong to the wolves, bears and deer,” said Ornella Dorigatti, Trento’s representative for the International Organisation for Animal Protection (OIPA), who has been on hunger strike for 10 days to protest against Papillon’s incarceration. “We humans are just guests.”