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Bears’ Return to Pyrenees Cheered

June 3, 2006

TOULOUSE, France (AP) _ Best of luck, Balou! Hundreds of people _ hugging teddy bears, dressed as bears, singing bear-loving songs _ rallied Saturday in support of four bears released in the French Pyrenees in a contentious repopulation effort.

A 4-year-old male, nicknamed Balou and weighing 194 pounds, was set free Friday, the fourth brown bear to find a mountain home here in recent years.

Fearing clashes with angry farmers, the demonstrators switched their rally venue from Bagneres-de-Luchon, near where Balou was released, to the regional capital, Toulouse. The march unfolded peacefully, and included top Green Party politicians and members of animal rights groups, including the Brigitte Bardot Foundation and the World Wildlife Federation.

Pyrenean farmers have protested the program, fearing bear attacks on their livestock. After brown bears disappeared from the Pyrenees in the 1980s, authorities released three bears in the region in 1996, and one of them killed 165 sheep last year.

``We understand the problems of the farmers ... but the bear should not be a scapegoat in the crisis of farming life,″ environmentalist Christian Agisu said.

Another marcher, Roland Guichard, called the reintroduction of bears ``a reparation of past losses.″

``Don’t Touch My Bear″ read some placards. Some marchers chanted ``Bears, shepherds, sheepdogs _ let’s live together.″

Marchers submitted a petition with more than 126,000 signatures in support of the program.

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