Juan Carrito, Italy’s Beloved Brown Bear, Dies In Traffic Accident

The 3-year-old rare Apennine brown bear was killed Monday night. He had become a celebrity because of his forays into human habitats.

ROME — Throughout his short life, the brown bear known as Juan Carrito always made headlines.

He was famous in Italy in part for being an Apennine brown bear, a critically endangered subspecies that lives in the Apennine Mountains, in an area straddling the Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise regions.

But he was also a personality — or at least a bear whose gluttonous excursions into human territory brought him celebrity among many Italians and was held up as a warning by wildlife advocates. He was mourned after his death in a car accident on Monday.

By the time he was 2, Juan Carrito had become a social media star for his daring forays into the centers of ski resorts and mountain villages, where he foraged for food and rummaged through trash cans and dumpsters.

“He was an exuberant animal — I used to compare him to a sort of James Dean of bears, beautiful and damned,” said Luciano Sammarone, the director of the National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise, one of the areas where the rare bears reside.

“He spent his entire life in the spotlight,” he added, describing Juan Carrito as a sort of “ambassador for the Apennine brown bear” that increased awareness.

The bear grew bolder with age, making international headlines in November 2021 after breaking into a bakery in the mountain town of Roccaraso, stuffing his face with cakes and pastries and trashing the place.

“He was food-conditioned,” said Marco Antonelli, a biologist and expert on large carnivores for WWF Italy. “The only way to resolve this is to educate people not to feed wild animals” and to make sure that food is dumped in bear-proof containers.

Forest rangers captured Juan Carrito twice and took him into the wild to be re-acclimated away from humans. It was for his own good, officials said at the time, noting the unhealthy effects of eating trash — everything from leftover pizza to plastic — and the potential danger to people and the bear.

“Many thought of Carrito as a sort of Winnie the Pooh, a teddy bear, but that’s just wrong,” Mr. Sammarone said. “Wild animals have nature to feed off of. We can’t alter or manipulate the rhythms of nature.”

Juan Carrito’s mother, Amarena, had been notorious in her own right as a food-conditioned bear. (She also gained some fame for giving birth in January 2020 to four cubs, a record for Apennine brown bears, according to Mr. Antonelli.)

The first time Juan Carrito was released into the wild, in December 2021, he spent a week in the forest before venturing back into an inhabited area. He was captured again months later and placed in a bear reserve, in the hopes that he would develop a taste for more appropriate natural food: berries, insects, carcasses, honey.

This time, he lasted three weeks in the wilderness before the lure of junk food brought him back into human habitats. The Italian news media breathlessly tracked his movements, relishing the rebellious bear, while forest rangers tracked him via a radio collar, hoping he would remain safe and far away.

“It was difficult because once a bear has learned how to find easy food, it goes back,” Mr. Antonelli said. “It’s like humans being shown a buffet and told they can eat for free.”

The fact that Juan Carrito was still roaming the Apennines in January, rather than hibernating as bears should, was because he was looking for food in villages, he said: “That was anomalous.”

The bear’s scientific name was M20, but he was named Juan Carrito for the tiny town where he did some of his first incursions, and Juan is the Spanish version of Giovanni, for Giovanni Cannata, president of the National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise.

Juan Carrito became a mascot of sorts of the Abruzzo region. When he broke into a beehive last September, the beekeeper joked that the bear loved his products. Last month, a local Michelin-starred chef, Niko Romito, caught the bear roaming around near his three-star restaurant. He posted on Instagram that the bear had gone straight for the kitchen.

A consortium of ski resorts in Roccaraso put on a brave face because of the lack of snow in the area this month, posting a photo of Juan Carrito walking on barren ground and saying that, yes, the snow was missing, but at least he’d come.

An encounter with humans ultimately proved fatal for the bear. He was hit by a car on a road between Roccaraso and Castel di Sangro.

“As there are only 60 examples of this rare brown bear, the death of even one individual is serious,” said Mr. Antonelli, adding that traffic accidents were the most significant cause of deaths for the Apennine brown bear, because the area in which they live is near highways and roads that are not adequately safeguarded.

The road on which the bear was killed was “sadly famous” he said; another bear was killed on the same tract in 2019.

Italians mourned Juan Carrito’s death. The Rome newspaper Il Messaggero blazoned a large photograph on its front page: “Goodbye to Carrito, the ‘city’ bear killed by a car,” read the headline. Hundreds of Italians paid their last respects on social media.

If there was any consolation at all, Mr. Sammarone said, “Carrito died as a free bear,” having been allowed to live in the wild, rather than cooped up in a reserve. “The challenge is to learn from this,” he said, “otherwise his death will have been useless.”

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