Police have broken up a banquet of bear meat hosted by Silvio Berlusconi’s powerful coalition partner in northern Italy after government ministers and animal rights groups described the event as scandalous.
The order to down cutlery came as about 200 people lined up to devour grilled and stewed bear at a rally in Imer in the Italian Dolomites organised by the Northern League.
Organisers said they had bought the meat legally in Slovenia to get round a ban on bear hunting in Italy, but food safety officers from Italy’s paramilitary carabinieri police objected to the lack of import documentation for the 50kg of meat.
Speaking at the event, Enzo Erminio Boso, a former League senator, said he suspected the raid had been arranged by members of Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party who earlier demanded that League leader Umberto Bossi halt proceedings.
Foreign minister Franco Frattini and tourism minister Michela Vittoria Brambilla had condemned the bear feast as “a scandalous initiative”, while environment minister Stefania Prestigiacomo described the get-together as “barbarous”.
In his blog, Frattini said the banquet was particularly offensive since Italian bears were “almost extinct and we are trying with great effort to bring them back to the mountains that have hosted them for centuries”.
The brown bear population has risen to about 35 in and around the Dolomites after 10 were reintroduced there a decade ago. But instead of celebrating their return, some locals have complained that the bears are attacking chickens and sheep. Claims made for lost livestock rose to ¤100,000 (£90,000) last year, and farmers were fed up, said Maurizio Fugatti, an MP for the devolutionist and anti-immigrant Northern League.
Hence the banquet, which, said Fugatti, had been planned to “send a clear signal to citizens who have the right to reconquer their territory and freely circulate”.
To protect locals from marauding bears, he added, “we prefer to eat them like this.”
Fugatti said half of the bear meat had been cooked for the cancelled banquet but the remainder was frozen and ready for a new dinner date should the paperwork be put in order.
“The idea was to attract attention to a bear repopulation plan which has got out of hand, resulting in locals being followed by bears through woods normally frequented by families. Even if the banquet doesn’t happen, we have made our point,” he went on.
The Northern League has long specialised in controversial statements and stunts. In 2007 Senator Roberto Calderoli proposed dissuading Muslims from building a mosque in Bologna by parading a pig across the chosen site, defiling it.
Massimiliano Rocco, an officer with the WWF in Italy, praised the police raid on the banquet: “If they wanted to provoke debate about the right way to manage the bears in the area, there was no need to illegally import the meat of a protected species.”