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Bernese ex-minister gets his very own bear

The bear looks past Samuel Schmid to the Bären inn swissinfo.ch

When the people of Rüti bei Büren decided to honour local resident and former government minister, Samuel Schmid, it was clear what they had to give him: a bear.

This content was published on June 10, 2009 - 16:15

It was known in the village that Schmid was not just passionate about politics, but also about bears.

At the unveiling of his statue, Schmid spoke to swissinfo.ch about the qualities he admires in the animals, and his hopes for the new bear enclosure in Bern, which opens later this year.

The former cabinet minister has a growing collection of bears, accumulated over 25 years. Most of them are on show until the end of June at the Château de Chillon on Lake Geneva.

The life-size wooden statue of an upright bear, which was also on show at Chillon, now occupies place of honour on a new square in Rüti, overlooking the Bären (Bears) inn.

Schmid retired from active political life at the end of last year after a long period under fire over his handling of the defence ministry.

swissinfo.ch: Are you enjoying your retirement?

Samuel Schmid: Yes, certainly. I was involved in politics for over 40 years. I started off here as mayor and then moved to the cantonal and later the federal parliaments. Finally I spent eight years in the cabinet. At 62 I feel entitled to turn the page and do other things.

swissinfo.ch: How did your collection begin?

S.S: About 25 years ago my wife gave me a carved wooden bear from Brienz as a birthday present. Then I started looking round for other special bears and occasionally bought a few or received them as presents. It's not a collection that was put together scientifically, it contains pieces that are mementos and has grown to about 50 now.

swissinfo.ch: Are there any favourites?

S.S: Yes, the first one from my wife and also a special bronze one from my family that was given to me on my election to the cabinet. There are certain memories attached to all of them.

swissinfo.ch: What attracts you to bears?

S.S.: For one thing it's that I'm from Bern and the bear is the heraldic emblem of canton Bern. Also it's a bear that's native to Switzerland, that used to live here.

It's an animal that symbolises many different things: it's a symbol of power, strength, tenacity. But on the other hand, when you think of young children, it's a symbol of security, it protects, keeps confidences and means a lot to them. There's no other animal that has this duel symbolism.

swissinfo.ch: You're reported to have said that you think you are like a bear?

S.S.: That's for other people to judge. You could say though that the Bernese have certain qualities or characteristics associated with bears. They are not very loud; they are quiet and thoughtful. On the other hand, they can be more dangerous than people suspect and always get what they want. So in this respect the comparison could apply to me.

swissinfo.ch: What do you think of the empty bear pit in Bern?

S.S.: The site will have bears in it again by the end of the year and the new enclosure will be appropriate for their needs. I'm very happy that this risky project was undertaken, and I threw my weight behind it.

It was certainly time. The idea of bears being kept in a pit with a stone floor is not what we consider appropriate nowadays. And if we can do anything to make the life of bears in captivity closer to natural conditions, we have to do it.

Morven McLean in Rüti bei Büren, swissinfo.ch

Samuel Schmid

Elected to the government on December 6, 2000, he took office the following January. He was president of Switzerland in 2005 and headed the defence ministry.

Following a growing division in the rightwing People's Party, Schmid and other members of the Bern faction left the party and helped set up the rival Conservative Democratic Party at the end of 2008.

After coming under sustained criticism over the appointment of a new army chief, he made an emotional exit from government in December 2008.

In January he joined the Senior Advisory Board of the European Union independent commission looking into the Georgia conflict.

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Schmid's bear

Carved by Pascal Baur from pine from a 100-year-old tree in the Rüti forest.

Baur said it was important to use wood that contained "the spirit" of Schmid's local area.

The bear took 77 hours to produce: 65 hours of sawing and 12 hours of carving.

It is 179cm high, 220cm including the base and weighs between 300 and 400 kg.

According to mayor Andreas Philipp, the statue has been well received by locals, where the people are proud of the achievements of the former cabinet minister. However, some expressed concerns the statue could be vandalised.

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