Europe, the birthplace of the "Little Red Riding Hood" legend and the Big Bad Wolf, is now home to twice as many wolves as the contiguous United States, a new study finds, despite being half the size and more than twice as densely populated.
National Geographic, Dec. 19, 2014
For a decade after the Cold War ended, I lived in a heavily forested part of Bohemia (a.k.a. the Czech Republic) near the border with Bavaria. A land where bears and wolves and lynx were once abundant.
I bought a primitive stone cottage dating back to the 1890s in a village dating back to the Middle Ages. The village is situated in a rugged semi-mountainous region and surrounded by thick woods. It is ideal habitat for large predators.
The original inhabitants of the little stone cottage did not have to worry about bears. By the 1890s, nobody in Bohemia had seen a bear in the wild for over 50 years.
Fast forward one century. I am looking out a window in a house on the outskirts of Prague. It is mid-morning on a bright summer day. A young man is walking down the middle of the street. With a half-grown bear. On a leash.
A day or so later, I am out in the garden. Same house. Same street. A fence and tall privacy hedge separate this garden from the adjacent property directly behind it. There is a loud other-worldly roar behind the fence.
Keep in mind this house is located in an upscale neighborhood on the fringes of a metropolis. The roar emanates from a large jungle cat. A leopard. The neighbors keep it in a large cage.
Here kitty, kitty.
A bear and a leopard. Both living in captivity (as family pets?) in a country where large predators long ago ceased to exist.
What does it mean when previous generations out of fear and loathing drive a particular species of wild animal to extinction and then a member of a future generation brings one back into the midst of society and, in effect, makes it part of the family?
It’s bizarre to keep a bear or leopard or wolf as a pet. These dangerous predators belong in nature, not next door in your neighbor’s garden, for Pete’s sake.
But consider the context. The Czech people there lived under Communist rule for four decades and were not free to express themselves. Suddenly the old rules, like the old rulers, were swept away. For a brief period, it was as though all rules were suspended.
Actions speak louder than words. Millions of ordinary Czechs overthrew a repressive political system in 1989 by simply showing up and taking part in peaceful mass protests in the heart of Prague. They “elected” a dissident playwright—the late Vaclav Havel—president by acclamation at a rally in Wenceslas Square.
If people can overthrow an autocratic government without firing a shot, why not walk down a city street with a bear on a leash? Why not bring back Ursus horribilus, one bear at a time?
Ursus horribilus is the scientific name for brown bears, not to be confused with black bears, the kind still surviving despite all the odds—human ignorance, intolerance, poaching, inadequate legal protections and declining habitat—in Ouray County.
Evidence published in Science magazine in December 2014 points to the stunning conclusion that Europe is "succeeding in maintaining, and to some extent restoring, viable large carnivore populations on a continental scale." It’s stunning because Europe is “one of the most industrialized landscapes on Earth,” National Geographic notes, “with many roads and hardly any large wilderness areas.”
But is it true?
Facts are facts. A phalanx of carnivore biologists fanned out across the Continent from Norway to Bulgaria. What they found is that wolves, brown bears, lynx and wolverines are making a comeback in roughly a third of Europe.
Despite “a deeply rooted hostility to these species in human history and culture," most of Europe’s 50 countries (all but four) now have established and reproducing populations of large predators.
And get this: Exclude Alaska and there are more brown bears (what we call grizzlies) in Europe now than in America—a lot more, in fact. An estimated 17,000 brown bears compared with just 1,800 grizzly bears in the U.S. Lower 48.
What accounts for this remarkable recovery? It’s a fascinating question, but it will have to wait until it’s my turn to fill this space again.
Tom Magstadt writes and cooks in the log cabin of his dreams. He lives on a mountain in Ouray County and frequents Colorado Boy almost enough to qualify as a regular. Visit Tom’s blog at http://open.salon.com/blog/dakotakid