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Police update animal protection policies following backlash over bear killings

Animal rights groups have heavily criticised police for their decision to kill several injured bears last year.

At least four bears across Finland were injured by animal traps last year, including mother bears with cubs. Image: Itä-Suomen poliisi

The National Police Board of Finland has updated its protection policy for large carnivores.

Last year, Finnish police issued orders to put down four bears that had injured themselves after getting caught in traps meant for small predators. The killings received widespread media coverage, prompting backlash and criticism from animal rights groups.

The police's new animal protection protocol, which was published last week and must be followed by all departments, reportedly places more emphasis on an injured animal's right to live.

Kai Vepsäläinen, an inspector with the National Police Board of Finland, stressed that the police's actions in recent cases were appropriate given the situation and were in accordance with protocol at the time.

"However, we want to emphasise that solutions other than termination are possible under the new guidelines," he said.

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Inspector Kai Vepsälainen says that police will take the fundamental rights of animals into account. Image: Poliisihallitus

Vepsäläinen also stated that police would take cubs into account when considering the fate of a mother bear, and will consider seeking expert advice from veterinarians and zoos if required.

"The line of action will not change, but it will be clarified and harmonised," he added.

Public criticism

Harri-Pekka Pohjolainen, Superintendent at the Eastern Finland Police Department, said that he is pleased with the updated guidelines.

According to Pohjalainen, there was an exceptional number of cases of bears getting caught in traps in the North Karelian municipalities of Eno and Lieksa last July, resulting in an unprecedented situation for police.

Two cases in particular received widespread attention in the country. Last August, a mother bear who was injured by a trap in Lieksa was killed by a hunter in what he called an act of mercy after police had issued orders allowing the animal to be killed.

Pohjalainen added that the updated protocol on large carnivores would not have changed the fate of the bear, which was gravely injured.

A second injured mother bear, which had been moving around with its paw still caught in a trap, and its four cubs were also sighted in Eno in July.

Several attempts were made to find and capture the animal and free it from the trap before officials eventually took the decision to suspend the search.

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Police issued orders to kill the injured bear in Lieksa Image: Teuvo Kaukola

At the end of last year, police in Eno issued an order to euthanise the four bear cubs, all of which were less than a year old. The decision was eventually overturned after experts confirmed that the cubs were old enough to survive in the wild.

However, pictures and information about the case were widely circulated on social media, leading to strong criticism from animal activists.

The events led to the drafting of a citizen's initiative calling for all animal traps to be banned, as well as a statement from Jenni Haukio, wife of President Sauli Niinistö, who questioned the police's decision in a tweet (siirryt toiseen palveluun). The initiative has since garnered enough signatures to proceed to parliament for debate by MPs.

"There were no guidelines for this [situation]. Individual officials tried their best to take all aspects into account while under intense pressure," Pohjalainen stated.

In August, a rescue patrol comprising volunteers from animal shelters offered police their assistance in the Eno case. Police however rebuffed their help on the grounds that they did not have the necessary permits, and have since stopped actively looking for the bear. However, the order to kill the injured animal remains unchanged.

"The new guidelines state that a maximum of three weeks is a reasonable time to look for an injured large carnivore. It must be taken into account that tracing the animal can cost up to tens of thousands of euros," Vepsälainen noted.

"Additionally, all external rescue teams will be excluded from police operations. The risks and responsibilities are so great that we would rather only ask other authorities for help," he added.

Expert: New policy still lacking

Birgitta Wahlberg, President of the Finnish Animal Rights Lawyers Society, told Yle that while she thinks the changes to the protocol for large carnivores is, on the whole, promising, it still has shortcomings in terms of animal rights.

In particular, a condition that states that the pain suffered by an animal that has been injured by a trap meant for small predators is enough grounds for ending its life. According to Wahlberg, police should not follow this requirement blindly, as it is too simplistic.

She also pointed out that the new policy does not specify a maximum period for tracing the animal.

"Decisions regarding the treatment of large carnivores will continue to be made on a case-to-case basis. Internal guidelines for police do not override animal welfare legislation, which is stricter," Wahlberg stated.