Klaus Gabbert, EPA

Remembering Bruno, the Problem Bear That Overshadowed the 2006 World Cup

The first bear on German soil in almost two centuries wandered across the border during the 2006 World Cup. German citizens were divided on what to do with the problembär.

Jul 8 2016, 2:55pm

Klaus Gabbert, EPA

On the night of May 19, 2006, a bear crossed the Austrian border and walked five miles north, into Germany. The area it entered, near the municipality of Ettal, in Bavaria, is idyllic in a Sound of Music sort of way, with valleys divided by mountains with cloud-covered peaks. The people live in timber frame houses surrounded by vast, wildflower-dotted meadows. About 800 people live in town.

The bear, which weighed about 600 pounds, was hungry. It had traveled about 15 miles that day. After dark, it came to a sleepy pasture in a neighborhood of Ettal called Graswang, where it had found a herd of sheep. It killed three.

When the villagers found the bodies the following morning, blood on white wool, they reasoned the sheep had been slaughtered by a huge, wild dog. A wild dog living in the forest eating livestock is scary enough—the kind of scenario that brought the Brothers Grimm fame—but not nearly as scary as a bear. There hadn't been a wild bear in those parts—or anywhere in Germany—since 1835.

The people of Graswang didn't realize what had actually happened until later that week. On May 20th, the bear killed four more sheep in a neighboring village. The night after that, it got into a chicken coop. Feathers were everywhere.

The German press jumped on the story. "First Sighting in 170 Years: Wild Bear Causes Chaos in Bavaria" read a Der Spiegel headline on May 22nd. It was one of many stories about the bear.

Under normal circumstances, a story about a bear wouldn't have been something to really catch fire. But as journalists poured into the country to cover the 2006 World Cup, the story took on a kind of super charge. An Austrian journalist discovered the bear had come from Italy before passing through Austria and dubbed him Bruno ("orso bruno" is Italian for Brown bear). The name stuck.

Over the next month, Bruno became a media darling, but his presence caused an unexpected division among the German public, pitting environmentalists against farmers and hunters. While the World Cup filled the back pages of Germany's newspapers, Bruno filled the front. With each sighting, his legend grew.

The government tried to kill and capture him. Bruno became a renegade, a hero to some. He ate livestock and pets, including one poor 12-year-old girl's guinea pig, which somehow made him even more likable. Environmentalists wrote songs about him. Hunters armed themselves and tried to find him in the forest but were repeatedly, comically outwitted. His saga became political. The Bavarian Archdiocese weighed in. U.S. diplomats wrote about Bruno in State Department cables. The Italians claimed him as their own. The Bavarians told the Italians, politely, to go fuck themselves.

Major sporting events often have side stories. The Russian hooligans of Euro 2016. The white elephants and political turmoil of the 2014 Brazilian World Cup. The economic progress in 2012 Poland. In 2006, the side story was a brown bear named Bruno with a taste for guinea pigs, pet rabbits, and sheep, equal parts funny and menacing.

And for almost the entirety of the 2006 World Cup, Bruno was on the lam.

The last bear to live in the German wilderness prior to Bruno's arrival is said to have been shot by a man named Ferdinand Klein on October 24th, 1835, in Ruhpolding, Bavaria. When Bruno crossed the border, the German media unanimously reported Ferdinand's kill as the "last in Germany." This is amazing because Germany didn't really exist in 1835. Back then, Bavaria was still an independent kingdom. What's more, the duchies and kingdoms that formed the German Empire in 1871—the precursor to what we now think of as Germany—took up an area about 71,000 square miles larger than contemporary Germany. Put differently, the Germany of today is smaller than the Germany of the 1800s by an area roughly the size of North Dakota.

1835 "Germany" was a huge area, and yet Bruno's German ancestors were eradicated about halfway through the industrial revolution. "It wasn't done for nothing," a spokesman for the Bavarian Hunting Association told Zeit early in the Bruno saga.

German Bear Solidarity. Credit: EPA

1800s Germany was profoundly changing. The first railway in Bavaria was completed in 1834. Over the next century and a half, the railway grew and the country industrialized and urbanized, forests were cut and replaced by farmland and homes, the Rhine River was straightened, and marchland drained. By the end of the industrial revolution, Germany was unrecognizable from the Bavarian kingdom in which Klein stalked his kill. By the late 1900s, there wouldn't have been a place to put bears even if they were still around. The German wilderness had been, well, pasteurized.

Bruno's border crossing was viewed by many as a good sign. After 170 years of humans dominating nature, the idea that perhaps we'd gone too far—that things were out of balance—had taken hold. Bruno's return was a sign of progress, proof that Germany's, and Europe's, environmental movement had at least begun to correct some of the damage humans caused in their march toward modernism.

The residents of Graswang may not have suspected that a bear had attacked their sheep on May 19th, 2006, but there was a group of environmentalists and biologists who would have had a pretty good idea. They had been attempting to track Bruno in Austria since May 11th. They had informed the German government of his potential arrival. The day before Bruno crossed into Germany, Werner Schnappauf, Bavaria's Minister of the Environment, made a statement, joking that "the brown bear is welcome in Bavaria" and that Bavarians would do their best to be "good hosts."

But Bruno's arrival wasn't welcomed by everyone, particularly the farmers who were inadvertently and unwillingly feeding Bruno their livestock. Within days of his arrival, Bruno had divided Germany into two camps: nature lovers, and farmers and hunters, who saw him as an attractive prize. The press didn't take sides so much as it reveled in the absurdity of it all, portraying Bruno less as a menace than a cartoon, a lumbering, happy go lucky, real life Yogi.

The problem though was that Bruno loved sheep. He wasn't radio collared, and the biologists in Austria tracked him largely by looking for upset farmers. As Bruno continued meandering through the Alps, wandering back and forth across the border, his trail of dead sheep grew. Austria's Bear Response Team—a group of university biologists and World Wildlife Fund employees that worked to discourage the three dozen bears in Austria from entering towns, often with rubber bullets or by trapping and moving—concluded that Bruno had become habituated to human settlements. They feared things could get dangerous in the event of a close encounter—say, in a barn. The Response Team thought Bruno was so habituated that he couldn't even be safely removed to somewhere more remote. They asked the Bavarian government to issue hunting permits.

"The bear has become a problembär," Schnappauf said on May 22nd, just six days after welcoming Bruno to Bavaria. He issued an open permit to shoot Bruno that same day. "He's clearly out of control."

The following day, the Bavarian Archdiocese issued a statement. Two things were at play here. First, Pope Benedict the XVI was scheduled to visit Germany the following August. Secondly, the Pope's coat of arms featured a brown bear. This wasn't just any bear. The Pope's bear, or more precisely Corbinian's bear, was also Bavarian. Catholic lore says St. Corbinian tamed the bear after being attacked in the Alps. The Saint brought it to Rome. When it was later set free, the animal returned to Bavaria.

"The Pope's inclusion of the bear in his coat of arms is an authoritative reaffirmation of the bear's right of habitat in Bavaria," the statement concluded.

The Pope's coat of arms. Credit: Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo

The idea that Germany would so quickly move to once again eradicate its bear population enraged people across the country, and not just the Catholics.

"In the countries surrounding Germany, bears lives peacefully together with people," said Hubert Weinzierl, the president of the German League for Nature, Animal and Environmental Protection, a private umbrella organization that oversees numerous environmental and nature-focused clubs in Germany. "In contrast, we immediately chose this typical German solution and make ourselves global laughingstocks."

The absurdity of it all was not lost on the U.S. diplomats either, who saw Bruno's adventure as both comedic and insightful.

"We never expected it to be of deep consequence," Matthew Rooney, the former U.S. Consul General in Munich, told me by phone. "But it was worthy of a cable, and even in retrospect I think it revealed a couple of things about the way Germans think about nature and the way they conduct relationships with nature." (The diplomatic cable authorized by Rooney was later leaked by Wikileaks.)

"We thought it was just one of those little insight moments," Rooney said, "which is kind of the stock and trade of American diplomats."

Rooney's office found Bruno's story particularly interesting given what was happening at the time in international politics. George W. Bush's decision not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol deeply upset Germans. Germany arguably does more to transition away from fossil fuels than any other nation.

Rooney, as a senior U.S. diplomat, spent a lot of time in dialogue with business leaders and German citizens who thought Americans were "heedless of the natural environment and that the Germans, by contrast, were invested in the natural environment and hiking in the woods and the forest and were committed to saving the planet in a way we [Americans aren't]," Rooney told me. "And so, Bruno the bear, to us, was basically a case study in how that relationship in Germans' minds actually worked and what the tenor of the relationship in Germans' minds actually was."

The cable, which is an excellent read, makes note of the fact that in the United States, a country supposedly out of touch with nature, people live in relative harmony with an enormous population of black bears—which are a bit smaller than Bruno's species of Eurasian brown bears. Furthermore, many American bears live in the U.S.'s large, protected National Parks and Forests, the likes of which don't exist in Western Europe.

Rooney told me a story about a bear in the western United States that made news around the same time as Bruno was causing trouble in Germany. This bear found a pizza in the back of a parked convertible and ate it in front of a number of laughing spectators. The bear also found a bottle of Jack Daniels. "It had managed to open the Jack Daniel's, and [took] a few swigs," Rooney said. He was not exaggerating.

Juxtaposed against how bears are treated in other countries, Bruno really had turned Germany into a laughingstock. Weinzierl was right.

A pro-Bruno protester. Credit: Frank Maechler, EPA

Things only got worse. It emerged that Bruno was the son of a bear that was part of a European Union effort to reintroduce the animals in the Italian Alps. The Bavarian government was inundated with pleas to save Bruno, including letters from children across the country. The ministers caved to public pressure, which didn't just come from Germany. A poll in Austria showed overwhelming public support for letting Bruno live. So rather than have him killed, the Germans brought in a supposedly crack team of Finnish bear hunters tasked with finding Bruno and tranquilizing him. Once sedated, they planned to move him to an enclosure somewhere—the Italians offered to take him, as did an animal preserve in Germany—where he could live a life of luxury as the hero of modern Germany that he had become. The problem was finding him.

Bruno's movements—a new town each night, often 10-15 miles apart—were not typical, even for problembärs. Usually, a bear habituated to humans will return to the same place over and over, which makes sense. If it finds easy food once, why not go back?

The World Cup began during this search. While the world watched soccer, they also watched Bruno, who made headlines in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Readers followed along as Finnish hunters, working with the Austrian response team, showed up at a fresh kill, or after a sighting, to find nothing. The trackers ordered specialty bear traps from Montana and set them up in the hopes he might return to a kill, but he never did. Meanwhile the dogs, who weren't used to hunting in the summer, wore themselves out

On June 14th, the dogs picked up a scent, and the team spent the weekend searching an area around Kochelsee, a lake about 50 miles south of Munich. Three days later, in the heavy rain, with the hunters just minutes away, Bruno wandered through the town of Kochel am See, ate a pet rabbit and tore open a beehive, before relaxing, briefly, on the steps of the local police department. The dogs, because of the rain, never smelled a thing. By morning, he was gone.

Bruno's erratic movements flummoxed his trackers. They'd never seen anything like it before, and struggled to explain his behavior until one day the Austrian team received a strange phone call from the Italian Bear Response Team. The team members from the two countries knew each other well, but the Italians had yet to make contact during the hunt for Bruno. According to Felix Knauer, an Austrian bear biologists and member of the Austrian Team then working at the University of Freiburg, the Italians realized things were "becoming serious" and decided they had to tell the Austrians "the background of this bear," as Knauer put it, before it was too late.

"This bear was deterred many times already [in Italy], but never radio collared," Knauer explained. "When he damaged something, the next day, the Italian response team was waiting there, and when the bear came back they shot the bear with [rubber] bullets. And in this way, the bear was able to learn that the first night, it's no problem to damage [property], but the second night, when you come back? Then it's dangerous."

Knauer speculated Bruno had been deterred and shot "at least 20 times."

Given his history, Bruno's change in behavior, and his long, nightly treks through the woods, was remarkable. He was, you could say, smarter than the average bear.

His luck eventually did run out though. When the Finns flew home on the 24th, their dogs exhausted, their handlers humiliated, it looked like Bruno might spend the rest of his life free in the Alps. But two days later, in Rotwand am Spitzingsee, just before five a.m., a farmer fired three shots in the twilight.

Bruno was dead.

"Fed-Up Germany Kills Its Only Wild Bear," read the headline in the Washington Post. Der Spiegel took a graver tone: "Godspeed, Bruno: Brown Bear Meets a Tragic End." The Frankfurter Allgemeine explored Bruno's duality, "Der brave Bär und der Problembär" (The brave bear and the problem bear).

"Bruno was murdered, shot down in the prime of his young life, executed in cold blood," read another Der Spiegel postmortem. "We should reflect now on whether we feel happy with what we have done. We share a collective guilt for Bruno's demise, our inability to co-exist with nature has yet again prompted us to reach for the trigger. Bruno is dead and we are all the poorer for it: May his ursine soul rest in peace."

Against the wishes of Italian environmental minister Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, who wanted Bruno back on his native soil, Bruno's body was stuffed and brought to Munich's Museum of Natural History. There, his exhibit takes up an entire room. As the centerpiece, Bruno is mounted in a glass case, standing on his hind legs, his paws are on a partially-destroyed beehive. Honey is everywhere.

Bruno in his exhibit. Credit: Brian Blickenstaff

That's not the end of his legacy though—and this is where Bruno's story turns from one of failed sportsmen into one of actual sports. And not just because the day he was shot, the German national team, then coached by Jurgen Klinsmann, defeated Sweden 2-0—no doubt spurned on by the news of Bruno's untimely death.

"Nobody had ever seen a media outburst like this," Knauer said, recalling the attention Bruno generated. "We didn't notice in the beginning, but it was just before the soccer championships in Germany, and the month before, a lot of foreign journalists came to Germany. It was the same in Brazil and London and so on. They came to do some research in the country, and to learn about the country, and report on what is going on in Germany, and what Germany is like. And in this time, this topic raced. It generated world-wide media interest."

When school let out that summer at the University of Freiburg, Knauer's students traveled to Asia and South America. Everywhere they went, Knauer told me, they were asked about that poor, dead bear.

Back in Germany, the term "Problembär" became a recognized part of the sporting lexicon, where today it's routinely used to label players who are both talented and disruptive. The phenomenon is especially common in soccer—a game lousy with problem bears. But problem bears exist across the sporting spectrum. Germany's Dancing With the Stars had a problem bear, and, occasionally, they even appear in government.

The front page of BILD, Germany's most-read paper, from June 27, 2006. Credit: Brian Blickenstaff

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is probably the most famous problem bear, but the term's usage appears to stem from an incident in 2008. Back then, Lukas Podolski was at Bayern Munich, and the media had begun characterizing him as a disruptive presence at the club. German and Bayern Munich legend Franz Beckenbauer came to his defense.

"Someone shot Bruno the Bear—needlessly," Beckenbauer told the press, after assuring everyone Podolski wasn't a problem. "We've all suffered that and have regretted that. But here, we don't want to go that far."

Podolski, of course, turned out to be far from a problem. And while he may not have worked out at Bayern—he left the club not long after—he's been stellar for the German national team, where only two players have bettered his whopping 129 appearances.

Problembärs are everywhere though, in sports, at school, in life. If Bruno's saga tells us anything it's that maybe the bears aren't always the ones who are troubled. Sometimes, it's the rest of us.

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